Ending Mark

We had an interesting, but brief, discussion at our recent Bible Study about the closing section of Mark 16. We have spent the last 11 months poring over the text and we should complete it this week.

As far as I can tell, there are four Bible versions used by our attendees: the AV, the ESV, the NIV and the NKJV, the latter of which I use myself. I find it helpful to have a number of versions available to compare the translation and syntax. In most versions, Mark 16 formally ends at verse 8, and then the rest of the chapter follows, with a note explaining that the ‘earliest manuscripts’ do not include it. The implication here is that v9ff may be inauthentic and therefore rather suspect.

We evangelicals hang our faith on the authenticity and reliability of scripture. Whereas the liberal considers the Bible a mishmash of human ideas anyway, and the Catholic merely repairs to other sources of divine authority, we conservative protestants rely on the Bible and the Bible only. This matter is therefore serious. It is not crucial- the text of Mark 16:9ff offers little to challenge what scripture teaches elsewhere- but it is serious, nevertheless. Those translations based on the Alexandrian text, which suggest Mark 16:9ff may not be original, would be in danger of subtracting from God’s word had they not appended it. Those based on the Received text, perhaps without knowing it, may be guilty of adding to God’s word material which the original author did not write and the Holy Spirit did not inspire. The stakes are high.

The Alexandrian text of Mark’s gospel comes from the third century (from copies of copies of the original) and is considered older than most others. The Latin Vulgate translation, which is fourth century, and was also based on older, Greek editions, does include the ‘extra’ verses. Scholars are divided on the issue with most preferring to think the shorter version of Mark is the older. Apart from the omission from early manuscripts, there is internal, textual evidence that the verses were not part of an original. For example, verse 9 does not flow very well from verse 8. The biographical detail of Mary Magdalene’s seven demons is supplied, even though the reader comes across her twice already in just the previous chapter. The whole text reads like something of a summary, a ‘conclusion’ to a previously ‘unfinished’ essay.

Furthermore, the text itself contains some unusual claims about the powers or protections granted to believers:

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (NIV)

The other gospels do not record these promises, although similar things are said elsewhere, e.g. Matthew 10:1:

And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease. (NIV)

Paul was delivered from a poisonous snake he grasped in Acts 28:3, suffering no harm. There is no record of anyone sipping poison, but it stands to reason that a God who delivers from demons and snakes will probably defend against noxious beverages, too. Naturally, these verses have caused some dunderheads throughout the ages to handle snakes and quaff pesticides to prove their faith’s virility, such as the Old Rock House Holiness Church in Georgia, USA. This is not itself evidence that the verses are suspect. False doctrines and ungodly practices have been derived from other texts whose authenticity we do not then question. For examples, the Mormons baptise their dead relatives on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:29 and the ‘Jehovah’s’ Witnesses deny their children blood transfusions on the strength of Leviticus 17:14.

Here are some of the available solutions:

Mark’s gospel really does end at 16:8

Mark always writes with brevity and his descriptions are sometimes terse and brusque. Closing his narrative with verse 8 of chapter 16 would certainly be an example par excellence. He omits those beloved accounts of Christ’s nativity, so why should he speak excessive words about the other end of His life, the resurrection? If Mark is writing at Rome just before Nero’s persecution breaks out, as some scholars think, time may have been short. Better to write less, and quickly, than to not finish at all.

Even so, the last verse seems highly inappropriate. It ends with fear and uncertainty, a contrast to the hope and good news so trumpeted in chapter 1. The text hints that Christ will meet them again at Galilee; to not then describe that meeting, albeit briefly, would be a loose end indeed. Furthermore, the sentence structure is strange in English and even stranger in the Greek. It ends with the word gar (‘for’), which is hardly ever used to end a sentence, much less a book. The commentary on Mark which I used at university, written by D.E. Nineham (who was no evangelical), says that no other extant Greek writing concludes with that word.

Alternatively, there is one suggestion which no serious scholar seems to have mooted but which would account for Mark ending at verse 8: it was written before Christ’s ascension. In other words, Mark wrote as much as he reasonably could in a very short time frame and before Christ's earthly affairs were concluded. He would therefore have completed writing it before Jesus’ rounds of resurrection appearances had been completed. It would certainly explain his work’s shortness, for it would have been written in a matter of days or weeks with very few sources to draw upon apart from those readily to hand. This would not help us resolve whether to discard the extra verses, but it would account for the gospel’s apparent suddenness in the way it closes.

The verses were part of the original gospel as written by Mark

In other words, the 'extra' verses belong with the rest, and always have done. Then, one might ask, why are they missing from those very old manuscripts? The Trinitarian Bible Society, which defends the authenticity of the verses, states that

it is evident that some copyist of the third century left a copy of Mark unfinished and that the imperfect copy became the source of the small number of defective copies which have been preserved to our times. The vast majority of the manuscripts contain the verses in question.

It goes on to cite various early Christians and Church Fathers who appear to quote odd verses from the questioned text, such as Justin Martyr whom it says quoted the last verse just a half century after the last Apostles, and Irenaeus, who quoted verse 19 in 180 AD, suggesting the verses were already there to be quoted. This certainly satisfies many evangelicals, including those whose Bibles insert the verses with explanatory notes or in italicised text. It does not account for some of the verses’ unusual wording and material, however.

On the other hand, the idea that Mark would complete his gospel with the words

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (NIV)

-does not really strike the right note. He starts his gospel with hope and baptism but then apparently ends it with fear and uncertainty. Sure, he writes with a brevity and briskness unknown to Matthew, Luke and John, but this seems to be taking it too far, ad nauseum.

Secondly, the opening passages of both John and Luke are written in a style not seen elsewhere in their accounts, but this is seldom cited as evidence of multiple authors. Why cannot we allow Mark an alternative style when concluding his? This itself does not account for why some manuscripts omitted it. It might be some later copyists saw the change of style and decided to do some editing of their own to preserve the authentic ‘feel’.

The verses were not part of the original gospel but were written by Mark himself at some later date.

Although there are some unusual aspects to the text, it does also bear some decidedly Markan characterises, including its short, summative style. The term he uses for ‘creature’ is used twice elsewhere in the gospel, though it is much rarer in other gospels and epistles. As time goes on and our own personal writing styles shift slightly, so it might be that Mark was persuaded to add a concluding section to his rather abrupt narrative years after penning the original.

The verses were not part of the original gospel and were added by persons unknown

Who are these people? Why did they add them? Can we trust their contributions? As we cannot confidently answer the first question, we may have to answer no to the third. It is a wonder that no Bible version has been brave or honest enough to remove the offending verses altogether if its translators genuinely believed they were an intrusion into the text. On the other hand, the words may have been added by someone like Peter, who is often reckoned to be Mark’s main, earthly source. He may have added these lines to some copies of Mark’s work, while other copies in circulation escaped his supplement. Thus, some surviving copies include them and others do not. This is conjecture, however. Most proponents of this view, and there are many and well qualified, would simply state we cannot know the author’s identity so we must read them with caution. Okay, but let us remember that scholars also doubt the authorship (and therefore authenticity) of Colossians, parts of John, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, Titus, 2 Peter and Revelation. They will point out differences in style and vocabulary to other works by Paul, John and Peter and therefore suspect others of authoring them, in the apostles’ names.

At least one manuscript of Mark includes this wording for the gospel’s concluding section, which rarely makes it into the main text:

But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. (ESV)

I cannot claim that the above statement is inspired text, but I do believe it to be speaking truth nonetheless. The problem with the disputed verses of Mark’s gospel is that they purport to quote Jesus Himself, and offer actual teaching. Either Jesus said those words, or He did not. They either contain words of truth and light, or they are counterfeit. I use the NJKV because I consider the Received Text to be the original version. Many scholars would disagree with me, of course, but fewer perhaps than the experts in science who know my views on cosmology and biology. I cannot believe that God would allow inauthentic material from the hands of uninspired scribes to pollute and compromise His written word for sixteen-hundred years. Although there are plenty of poor translations available (such as the New World and The Message) as well as counterfeit primary documents (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas, The Secret Book of James) I believe that God vouchsafed and preserved the record of His earthly life and church. Much as I think the English language of the NIV and ESV are superior to that of the NKJV, I will be sticking with it for the fuller manuscripts upon which it is based.

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