Why Are You Hanging on to Mark 16:9-20?

I was surprised but I guess I shouldn’t be. This post may sound arrogant but I am only expressing the view of New Testament scholars, including many Evangelical and conservative scholars and apparently this needs to be said again. The other day in a list of some Patheos Evangelical blogs, I saw one that talked about Mark 16:9-16. I don’t want to sound arrogant but it’s virtually certain that Mark did not write that part of his Gospel. This is not a secret. It’s well-known that early, important Greek manuscripts that contain the Gospel of Mark, such as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, lack those verses or have them set apart so it is clear that the scribe considered them problematic. Nor are they attested early on by Patristic writers. Within later manuscripts that do contain verses in Mark’s Gospel after v. 8 there is a long ending in some, a short ending in some, and a combination of the two in some of them. One can understand why a scribe would compose an ending for the Gospel. It seems to stop at an odd spot. The women run from the tomb where they have been told that Jesus is risen from the dead and they tell no one. Luke and John both tell us that the women did go to the male disciples who were hiding out behind closed doors. So does Mark stop at that spot.  There are a few options. It might be that in the process of writing, he was interrupted, perhaps by Roman soldiers looking for Christians to burn in Nero’s garden as human torches. It could be that Mark did not otherwise have a chance to finish. Even though with a finished papyrus scroll, the beginning would be on the outside sheet and the last sheet would be on the inside, perhaps the original was rolled the opposite way as it probably would in the writing process. Then the possibility exists that the rest of Mark’s account is lost.

 

There is another theory that I’m very confident is wrong. It goes like this. All the way through Mark’s Gospel, the disciples have not done a very good job as disciples (they are imperfect but they are learning about Jesus for the first time and have a lot of rough edges that the Lord needs to sand down). Jesus predicts his coming death and they argue about who is the greatest. They show a lack of faith at times. As seen in all the Gospels, they don’t understand what Jesus says about his coming death and resurrection, primarily because they believe he is the Messiah and a Messiah who is killed is not part of what the Messiah is like. There were many pretenders in Jesus’ day who claimed to be the Messiah but weren’t. They died. If Jesus died, then he couldn’t be the Messiah. They all desert him when a mob comes to take Jesus away. In these and other ways, the disciples in Mark are not people that you would want to form the leaders of your church.

 

So, it is argued, Mark ends his Gospel with the women in fear saying nothing to anyone in order to challenge his audience to see if they will remain silent or they will go out and testify about Jesus. One analysis I read of this argument identified it as a good postmodern ending for a book but not an appropriate ending for a first-century biography. Furthermore, in Mark’s Gospel every single promise that Jesus makes is fulfilled except for his promise to meet the disciples in Galilee. That’s missing from the ending of Mark and that is quite odd. Another reason why the missing ending is likely missing rather than being omitted by Mark on purpose has to do with the Synoptic Gospels. If you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you will notice that they all tell basically the same story. At many points Matthew and Luke, when they record an event that is recounted in Mark’s Gospel, have wording that is very similar to what is Mark except that Mark’s account is usually longer and more detailed. This is simply a fact you can see by reading. In fact, I began reading the Bible before my conversion. I read Matthew. Then I started reading Mark and got the sense that I had already read this story before and in a sense, I had. I didn’t understand that.

 

It might be of interest to look at some of the content of these verses. You can pick up snakes. That seems to me to be clearly based upon the story of Paul in Acts in which he shakes off a viper. The drinking of poison seems odd. My guess is that the author of this ending was thinking about an anti-Socrates. He had to drink poison, thus committing suicide. If Mark did write this, then one should never join the CIA because you might be expected to take cyanide to avoid giving confidential information to an interrogator. So you would take it, suffer the pain from it, but not die from it because of this promise. According to the ending of Mark, if given poison to drink, it will not hurt you. The fact that some of those who handle snakes or drink poison to prove their faith die should be evidence enough that these verses are not original. Of course, if they are original, the idea is that if in the course of evangelism one of these things happens, God will protect you. They absolutely do not mean that if you dare God to keep his promise by doing something foolish, he will make sure you stay safe. I remember reading the story of Keith Green’s death in an overloaded small plane. His death and the death of everyone else on the plane had nothing to do with God’s will in my view. It had to do with what happens if you try to defy the laws of nature. IF you lack sufficient lift to get a particular mass into the air and keep it there. If you lack that, your plane will crash. Yes, it seemed like a terrible death and like God could have used Keith Green more but it seems to me that if you challenge common sense that God is under no obligation to protect you from your poor judgment. What about Mark 16:16? Now salvation is not dependent upon faith alone. It also requires baptism. That sounds more like a third-century idea. All throughout Acts people who believe in Jesus are always baptized. Mark 16:16 then might seem like a corrective to those who, by the fourth century A.D., believe that baptism removed all your sin and guilt (not Jesus’ death) and therefore people waited until they were very old before getting baptized. Of course if you delayed baptism and died before getting it, you would perish eternally. Therefore, the author of this verse is seeking to get people to undergo baptism instead of them failing to because of belief in a false understanding of what baptism does. This is where the Disciples of Christ and the Stone Campbell Movement come from. One representative of the latter group said that you not only have to believe and be baptized to be saved but you need to believe that you have to be baptized to be saved. Bantha fodder.

 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke together are called the “Synoptic Gospels.” The syn is from the Greek preposition sun, which means “with” and the “optic” is from Greek as well and means, “seeing.” When sun is put at the start of a word, it usually has the sense of “together.”The Synoptic Gospels see together. That is, they have the same basic story. There are many exceptions to this, such as all the parables found in Luke 10-17 or Matthew’s genealogy. Nevertheless, the majority of New Testament scholars who have studied the contents of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have concluded that Matthew and Luke followed Mark’s order of events and used what Mark wrote and then added additional information that they had to what they got from Mark. Copyright laws weren’t quite so strict then, I suppose. If this theory is correct, we can reconstruct how Mark’s Gospel ended by taking all the pieces that Matthew and Luke share in common and use that as the basic form of the original ending of Mark’s Gospel.

 

I once heard Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel (I was once a regular part of that church and normally attended evening Bible studies several nights a week if I could get a ride) say that there are more manuscripts that contain these verses than omit them. That is a true statement but it misses the reality of the creation of (biblical) manuscripts. There was no printing press in the first century or fourth century or fourteenth century. So any text that you wanted to make a copy of, had to be made by a scribe who was supposed to make a copy of the manuscript you gave him. (I’m sure women are capable of being scribes but I’ve never heard of one; most scribes were monks living in monasteries and if theer were women in the monastery, they were not copying manuscripts, but I digress). In the process of copying the text, odd things happen. First, you should know that the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament did not have spaces between words or any punctuation. Sometimes it appears that the scribe read a line and wrote it down. When he returned to the text, the next line in the original ended the same way as the line below it. So he scribe would mistakenly skip that line. That’s how one manuscript renders Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17 with, “I do not pray that you protect them from the evil one.” The scribe skipped a line. If you find he Sinaiticus web site, you can see that the text is in several vertical columns. In one manuscript, the scribe copied across the columns instead of down each one. The result is that in the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3, someone begets God!

 

If you look at manuscripts according to date and place of origin, you’ll find that most of the goofy stuff or clear scribal accidents (remember that many scribes were in monasteries and monasteries sometimes made and sold alcohol, and you can guess what happened), you can see that the further one got from Alexandria, Egypt, and the later a manuscript was chronologically, the more errors it tended to have. Even if you copy accurately, if the manuscript that you are copying has dumb errors in it, your text will be wrong. If you’ve played the telephone game, you may know that someone tells you something that you repeat to the next person in the line but it turns out at the end of the game that what you were told is not what was originally said.

 

The upshot of all this is that having 100 10th-15th centuries manuscripts that read something different from a 4th-century manuscript does not make the majority correct. The majority can be wrong. I’m tempted to make a political comment about certain politicians that were elected by majority before Donald Trump and I really wonder, What were they thinking? I won’t name names because I don’t want this to go off in the wrong direction. The majority of the U.S. Supreme Court voted for the Dred Scott decision, which was clearly wrong. No one should ever own slaves and the fact that Paul seemed to affirm slavery is a misunderstanding of the historical and social situation in the first century A.D. Paul should never have been used to justify southern slavery, which was a very different thing. Be that as it may, no one should ever own slaves, whether people ripped from their homes on another continent or forced into sexual slavery right here in the U.S. The majority is not always correct. That’s true in human thinking, deciding, and actions, and copying manuscripts is no different.

 

I know this is too long for a blog post and will end with this.

 

 

So no one should be preaching from or writing devotionals on any part of Mark 16:9-20. That someone is suggests that they did not do serious study on the passage. Yes, I know there are defenders of this passage because it is in the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV translators did the best that they could with what manuscripts they had. However, if you look at a modern Bible translation such as the NIV or NASB, you will see that at the end of Mark’s Gospel they make it clear that the passage is not found in the best, earliest manuscripts.

 

 

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1 thought on “Why Are You Hanging on to Mark 16:9-20?

  1. Thank you for good, solid evidence and explanation for the weird ending in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. I had read the clear notation in the NASB years ago, but had accepted that simple notation at face value. At least I had some clarity of mind during my high school days while reading my favorite New American Standard translation! Kudos to the LockmanFoundation.

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