The Long Ending of Mark 16
The Long Ending of Mark 16
In last quarter’s class, many of you noticed that Mark 16:9-20 is enclosed in brackets. Any time you see brackets (like in Mark 9:44 or John 7:53-8:11 or Acts 8:37), it means that textual scholars doubt that the passage is part of the original text, and that the data strongly though not conclusively suggest the passage was inserted later.
Where We Get Our Bibles
Now I remember the first time someone pointed this out to me, and I was alarmed. I thought the whole Bible is inspired! Never fear! It certainly is, and there are many reasonable evidences that prove the Bible is the inspired word of God.
But no person possesses the original manuscript written by Mark himself, nor any original page by any other Bible author. Our knowledge of what was written on these original documents comes from many thousands of copies, faithfully made and widely circulated by the recipients. This is exactly what they were expected to do (see Col. 4:16, 1 Thess. 5:27), often sending those letters via trusted emissary to authenticate the author (see Gal. 6:11, 2 Thess. 2:2).
While the process of writing was inspired, the process of copying was not. From time to time over the centuries, despite meticulous care, errors slipped in, usually by accident. Then, this error was passed down to further copies, like a genetic mutation.
It is the job of the textual critic to compare thousands of Bible manuscripts where they differ, to find sensible explanations why an error crept in and how far it spread, and to determine the original reading. For example, the extra words found in 1 John 5:7-8 in the KJV have been thoroughly studied and rejected as a late 15th-century uninspired addition. More recent translations relegate these words to a footnote.
Any variations that remain unsolved are almost all too trivial to mention—the spelling of a name, the order of words, whether Rev. 1:5 reads “washed” (KJV) or “released” (NASB). Occasionally a footnote in your Bible will point them out. For example, Mark 7:16 has a footnote, “early manuscripts do not contain this verse”; which hardly matters since the same words are found many other places. None of these still-disputed phrases affect doctrine.
You can have a great confidence in most modern non-sectarian translations. With new manuscript discoveries (including the writings of people who quote from the Bible) the time gap between the surviving copies and the original has grown so narrow that there is little time for unknown errors to have crept in. Though the Greek text has been revised since the KJV, “no doctrine of the Christian faith has been affected by this revision” (F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, p. 179). Another textual scholar says, “The result of all these studies strengthens both the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands the veritable word of God” (Frederic Kenyon, The Story of the Bible). Wescott and Hort, perhaps the greatest modern textual scholars, say in their introduction to The New Testament in the Original Greek, that passages still subject to uncertainty “can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the text.” This works out to less than half a page of your Bible!
Is Mark 16:9-20 Inspired?
So, back to Mark 16:9-20. Most modern conservative textual scholars, who wholeheartedly defend the inspiration of Scripture, say that Mark 16:9-20 is NOT part of Mark’s original inspired text.
The passage is not without its supporters. After all, the passage is found in many manuscripts, including one called the Diatessaron as early as the late 2nd century. And, would Mark really end his gospel on a sour note, “...they were afraid”?
However, the passage is not in the oldest best manuscripts (Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus). Early Christians such as Clement and Origin seem not to have known of the passage and do not quote from it. Early historians such as Eusebius (b. 260) and Jerome (b. 340) specifically state “the most accurate copies” of Mark end at v. 8, which suggests the controversy was already known and settled. The passage contains a lot of vocabulary and syntax found nowhere else in Mark, pointing to a different author.
As William Hendrickson points out in his commentary on Mark, “In view of the uncertain textual evidence for this longer conclusion, and therefore its doubtful canonical status, no dogmatic assumptions should be made from this passage alone.”
“But wait,” some may exclaim, “that yanks Mark 16:15-16 out of our quiver of doctrinal arrows!” Well, yes it would. But no Christian doctrine would be lost if we ignored the passage. Even if we stopped using Mark 16 to show that baptism is an essential part of God’s plan of salvation, there are a zillion others to which we might turn to make the same point.
As a final thought, while 9-20 is likely not written by Mark, it preserves an ancient witness to the gospel. Perhaps an inspired one, but it’s hard to say. One prominent theory is that Mark did write more after verse 8, but it was lost, and what was put in its place was not written by Mark.
Thankfully we don’t have to wonder what happens next. We can find the satisfying ending of the story, the resurrection, in Matthew and Luke and John and 1 Corinthians!