The Ending of Mark: Verse 8 or Verse 20?


Most contemporary English Bible translations have a note after Mark 16:8 that says verses 9-20 are not found in some of the earliest manuscripts and thus these verses are in brackets. I was recently asked to explain what this is all about on Faith Church’s Cover to Cover Podcast since we just read through the Gospel of Mark as part of our 4 Year Bible Reading plan. While I shared some thoughts there in audio form, I thought it might be wise to post some thoughts here as well.

What We Have and What We Find in Greek Manuscripts
Before digging deeper into what is happening at the end of Mark, I want to start by pointing out that there are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts on the New Testament (some of these are only of some portions). There are also early translations and quotations by early Christian writers with an unbelievable amount of evidence when it comes to ancient texts. Not only is the amount exceptional, but so is the date of some of these manuscripts, being much earlier to the date of writing than many famous writings from the ancient world.

An interesting implication of the abundance of evidence is that there are many variations found in the wording of these manuscripts. This is not surprising, as these manuscripts came from a time before there were computers or even the printing press; they were all copied by hand. The nature of this process caused people at times to add, remove, or alter the words for various reasons. Sometimes this was jumping over words, repeating words, skipping lines, or mistaking words for other words. At other times, the person copying may have thought there was a “typo” in the manuscript and thus would seek to correct it by putting in what they thought was the right word or adding what they thought was missing. 

What Scholars Have to Do With These Manuscripts
The presence of these variations in the copies we have of the Greek New Testament means that one of the tasks of biblical scholars is to examine these differences and try to figure out which one was the original and what may have led to the other readings. There is often a clear and logical explanation tied to some of the factors noted above, but sometimes it is a little trickier, which requires scholars to look at a number of factors. One element that scholars pay attention to is the date of manuscripts, as older copies are less likely to have had something messed up in the copying process. But at the same time, an error in transmission could happen early in the process too. Scholars also look at how many manuscripts feature a particular reading; if a large number reads one way but only a few read a different way, it makes some sense to think that the reading in fewer manuscripts is less likely to be original. However, a majority of manuscripts having one reading is not definitive proof that this is the best one, as these could also be copies stemming from the same copying mistake. There are a lot of other technical sorts of considerations in these discussions, but for the sake of space (and likely also your interest), I will not get into those now. 

The number of manuscripts we have of the New Testament has increased significantly over the past couple of centuries, which means that the number of manuscripts available to those who translated the King James Version was much smaller than what we have today. In addition, many of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament were discovered after the translation of the King James Version. These manuscripts feature readings that differ from the manuscripts available at the time of the King James Version – with these last verses of Mark being one of the more notable places where we find a difference. 

What To Make of Mark 16:9-20
While the majority of manuscripts of Mark feature Mark 16:9-20, the two oldest manuscripts of the complete New Testament do not include it. This points to Mark 16:9-20 either being something that was left out of those old manuscripts or that these verses stand as a later addition to the text. Which seems more likely to be the case? 

I am in agreement with many other scholars who, for many reasons, think that it is more likely that verses 9-20 of chapter 16 were an addition to the original text rather than something that was left out in these early manuscripts. One reason is that there is more evidence for these verses not being original than just their omission in these two oldest manuscripts of the New Testament. Some manuscripts that feature 16:9-20 note that some older copies did not include it or indicate it was questioned. We also see some early translations of Mark into other languages not featuring these words, and some early Christian writers note that it was absent in copies they knew of or show no awareness of it. Thus, it is not as simple as the majority versus these two manuscripts. 

I think even more compelling reasons are found by looking at what we read in Mark 16:9-20 itself. Verse 9 stands awkwardly next to verse 8, as the subject of the noun shifts from the women to Jesus and notes that Jesus drove out seven demons from Mary Magdalene even though she has already been introduced in the text. In addition, there are a number of words that appear in 16:9-20 that are not common to Mark, pointing to this not being from his hand. And finally, most of what is discussed in Mark 16:9-20 is information gleaned from other places in the Bible. For example, the appearance to Mary Magdalene and her report to the disciples (16:9-11; also see John 20:14-1), the disbelief of the disciples (16:11; Luke 24:11), the appearance to two disciples on a journey (16:12-13; see Luke 24:13-25), the commissioning the disciples to preach and baptize (16:14-16; see Matthew 28:16-20), the promise for the disciples to speak in tongues (16:17; see Acts 2:4-11), a statement about interacting with snakes (Mark 16:18; see Luke 10:19; Acts 28:3-6), words about healing the sick (16:18; see Acts 3:1-10; 9:12, 17-18), and the ascension of Jesus (16:19; see Luke 24:50-43 and Acts 1:9-11).

Those factors point to a strong possibility that someone added this ending to the Gospel of Mark. But why would someone do this? If we look back to Mark 16:8, we might understand why. This verse seems like an odd ending, as instead of concluding with appearances of the resurrected Jesus and his words of comfort and commissioning like the other gospels, the women run away from the empty tomb and do not tell anyone about it. How in the world could this be the ending? While this may seem like an odd ending, there is a sense in which this could be an “open” ending. It invites us to encounter Jesus for ourselves and to overcome any fears that we might have to share the good news of Jesus.

One can thus readily see a scenario in which a copyist would find such an ending odd and include notes of what we are told in the other gospels as a way to help the reader understand what happened after this. Such a note may not have been intended to be an “addition to the text,” but something of a study note or “epilogue” that was then included with the next copy and worked its way into the text. This scenario seems more likely to me than that a few copyists missing this page that they were copying or forgot to copy such a significant section of Scripture, both in terms of length and also its content. As I noted above, this is the position of most modern New Testament scholars, but I should note that it is not universally held. Some scholars – including those who worked on the New King James Version of the Bible – think it is more likely that Mark 16:9-20 was the original ending.

While the majority of scholars who have worked on modern Bible translations doubt that Mark 16:9-20 was in the original text, they recognize the number of manuscripts that have the longer ending and the familiarity of this passage among English Bible readers because it was in the King James Version. This has led them to include it in the main text as opposed to simply putting it in a footnote like other places where additional manuscripts have shown that the reading in the manuscripts used by the King James translations seems unlikely to be original (for example, you will not find Mark 11:26 in the text of most modern translations but rather in a footnote). But they include this note about the manuscripts and also put it in brackets to designate their doubts about its originality.

What Difference This Does (And Does Not) Make
I realize that discussions like this are not only very detailed and technical, but they can also raise questions about whether we can really trust our Bibles. Thus, I want to conclude with a couple of reminders about what is – and is not – at stake here.

First, not viewing Mark 16:9-20 as original does not deny that Jesus rose from the dead, as this fact is attested in the other gospels. In fact, almost all that is found in Mark 16:9-20 is found in other parts of the Bible, so we really aren’t losing anything if this is not original. This is a good reminder that there are no key or essential doctrines that are at stake due to the differences between manuscripts. Nowhere do we find a difference in which some manuscripts say that Jesus rose from the dead and some say that he did not!

Second, the presence and number of differences between manuscripts of the New Testament should not cause doubt upon whether we really have the words that were written by the apostles. As I noted above, we have more and better evidence for the New Testament compared to other ancient texts. If we don’t think we can know the wording of the New Testament, then we really can’t know the wording of any ancient document. In fact, because we have so many manuscripts, we can have trust that we do have the true wording of the Bible within the various readings that are available. Therefore, rather than casting any doubt on whether we can trust the Bible, it is my hope that understanding the dynamics of how ancient texts work help us understand better how we got our Bibles and how God works both to preserve it and guide us as we study it.

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