This Sunday, we will conclude our series in Mark’s Gospel. What a time we’ve had following Jesus during His earthly ministry, watching Him serve and save His own! I trust that the Holy Spirit will keep what we’ve learned about our Lord and about ourselves in our hearts as we move on to study other portions of Scripture.
In preparation for our last sermon, I wanted to take some time to explain a sentence you will see in your Bible and how I will be dealing with it. Immediately following Mark 16:8, the publishers indicate in brackets: “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.”
As a disclaimer: the following information comes from biblical scholars who are much smarter and more well-learned than I am, but I am giving this info in an effort to explain our (the pastors’) desire to be faithful to preach the inspired Word of God. I will cite my sources at the end of the blog post if you wish you read further.
Ending with Verse Eight
This Sunday, my Scripture text will end with verse 8. The reason I will end our series there is because verses 9-20 were not written by Mark, but added at a later time and are thus not the inspired Word of God. (I’ll explain this more below.) These verses are now known as the “Longer Ending” of Mark, and are not found in the oldest available manuscripts.
By excluding verses 9-20 I am not saying that we cannot learn something from the Longer Ending and that God cannot use it to bring us encouragement and joy. Most of the extra content agrees with passages found in the other Gospel accounts. However, I am choosing not to preach it for the same reason we do preach the Bible every Sunday: as God’s infallible word is faithfully explained as He intended it to be, He uses it to sanctify us, to transform us into the likeness of His Son (John 17:17). As pastors we are charged to faithfully preach what God gave the original inspired authors, the men who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 2:21), and for this reason I’ve chosen not to expound verses 9-20 for the following reasons. Of course, you may not agree with my conclusions, but I am happy to sit down with anyone who would like to talk further on this subject.
So, how do we know these verses are not part of God’s inspired words to Mark? Two words: textual criticism. A brief lesson…
As you know, the English bible you and I read out of was not originally written in English (since English did not yet exist), but in the common languages of the time of writing. The majority of the New Testament was written in Greek. Unfortunately, none of the original manuscripts of the bible exist (these are called autographs). Actually, it’s quite difficult to find original autographs for many ancient writings. There are no original autographs for ancient authors like Josephus (A.D. 37 – c. 100, a Jewish historian), Tacitus (c. A.D. 56 – c. 120, a Roman historian), and even William Shakespeare!
What we do have are manuscripts – copies that were transcribed from the original. As the gospel began to spread around the world, new Christians and churches wanted to have their own copies of God’s inspired words given to the authors of the New Testament. So, scribes would be hired to hand-copy a copy of a Gospel or letter onto a papyrus scroll (keep in mind, the printing press wasn’t invented until 1440). As the church grew, thousands of these manuscripts resulted – around 5,700 to be more precise – dating from A.D. 135 to A.D. 1200. Think of that: the oldest New Testament manuscript still in existence dates back to A.D. 135, only around 25 years after the last texts of the New Testament were written! To put things into perspective, there are only 133 existing manuscripts for Josephus, the oldest dating to the eleventh century A.D., and only 3 for Tacitus, dating to the ninth century A.D.
Through the years, these manuscripts have been carefully preserved, and scholars throughout the centuries since have studied them to determine age, linguistic style, variations, etc., in order to determine what the original autograph actually said. Generally speaking, these thousands of copies show remarkable agreement.
This is textual criticism, a science which is studied not only with regard to the bible, but all ancient writings.
What about Mark’s Longer Ending?
The four Gospels we have in our bibles were all written before the end of the first century, and quickly received widespread reception from the early church as factual, eyewitness accounts written by disciples of Jesus, or those closely associated with them. (Many other so-called “Gospels” were written in the centuries following, but early church fathers rejected them as uninspired.) As I mentioned early in our series, Mark is the oldest Gospel account, completed sometime around the mid-60s of the first century. The other three canonical Gospels followed, and Luke and Matthew especially follow him most closely and likely used him for reference.
Of the manuscripts we have for Mark, the very oldest are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, both dating to the fourth century A.D. (although there is a fragment in existence which dates earlier, 150-250). Several hundred other early manuscripts have been discovered in the past several centuries as well. None of these manuscripts include Mark 16:9-20.
Some of the earliest church fathers, Clement of Alexandria (150–c. 215 A.D.) and Origen (c. 184–c. 253 A.D.) show no awareness of the longer ending in their writings, and both Eusebius (265–399 A.D.), a Christian historian, and Jerome (c. 347–420 A.D.), the man famous for his Latin translation of the bible known as the Vulgate, state that the Longer Ending was absent from the majority of the Greek copies they had. In fact, many of the ancient manuscripts still existing that do include vv. 9-20 indicate by scribal note that the Longer Ending is an artificial addition to the Gospel.
There are also various textual reasons why we may conclude that the Longer Ending was added at some point later. For example, the Longer Ending is not very Mark-like. Firstly, he ends the Gospel rather abruptly. There is no shortage of speculation among the scholarly community as to why this is (was he arrested and executed by Nero?), but the abrupt end in verse 8 is probably the reason why a “few well-meaning scribes” wanted to “smooth” it out by adding the Longer Ending (Purswell). Secondly, the addition’s verbiage is not characteristic of Mark’s style. Verses 9-20 include an additional eighteen words that do not appear otherwise in Mark, and use several Greek word forms Mark never uses otherwise. Thirdly, the theme of disbelief and scolding, and the attention given to charismatic signs diverges strongly from Mark’s otherwise reserved style.
Given the above internal and external evidence (manuscript witness), which “argues strongly against the originality of the longer ending,” we can conclude that 16:9-20 was added later, probably in “the first decades of the second century” by an unknown scribe or scribes (Edwards, p. 498-99).
So, what do we do with the Longer Ending?
Since the longer ending is included in many of the copies dating later, publishers have decided to keep it in our English bibles, but with an asterisk. None of the addition’s content is necessarily wrong, and much of it agrees with the other Gospel accounts. But knowing the above, I’ve chosen to treat it as my friend Jeff Purswell calls it: ancient, faithful commentary.
As Christians who desire to rightly divide the Word of God, we believe that God clearly spoke His exact words to men of his choosing – and despite the loss of the originals over time, He amazingly preserved them via the faithful transmission of manuscripts through the earlier centuries of the Christian church. And “in His mercy, [He provided a] superabundance of evidence to know just what he spoke” through them (Purswell).
As we’ll see Sunday, Mark does tell us that Jesus arose from the dead before he concludes, a fact upon which our faith hinges (see 1 Corinthians 15). Because of this, while we can still be encouraged by Mark’s longer ending, we can have confidence to know that the original ending in verse 8 represents precisely what God wants His people to know in every age, for all time. In the words of Elijah Hixson, “With or without Mark 16:9–20, the tomb is empty, Jesus has purchased our pardon, and we can be certain of that.”
Looking forward to being with you on the best day of the week!
Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2016. Print.
Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974. Print.
Hixson, Elijah. “Was Mark 16:9–20 Originally Part of Mark’s Gospel?” The Gospel Coalition. 13 Feb. 2020. Web.
Purswell, Jeff. “The Final Chapter.” Who Then is This?” [The Gospel According to Mark]. 19 July 2015, Louisville, KY, sgclouisville.org. Sermon.