On the Ending(s) of Mark’s Gospel

In the post titled “Newsweek Tells Christians They Are Wrong”, I mentioned that one of the examples of biblical corruption brought up by Kurt Eichenwald in his anti-evangelical, anti-Bible screed was the so-called “long(er) ending of Mark” (16:9-20). Some have called the debate about this passage the most significant textual controversy in the New Testament. I pointed out that most modern Bible versions/translations have a footnote to the effect that those verses are not found in the earliest manuscripts. Of course, there are many other books about textual criticism and commentary that discuss the passage, too. This is an example of good scholarship and shows that conservative academics and Bible publishers are not only aware of this “corruption” but try their best to educate laypeople, as well. I have come across additional information on this topic, which I thought I’d relate here for the benefit of those interested in such things.

Codex Vaticanus - ending of Mark

Codex Vaticanus – ending of Mark w/ v.8

Most people who read footnotes and possibly other sources of such information are aware of a couple possible endings for the Gospel of Mark. (Note: The phrase “manuscripts according to _______” used below means that the named individual, a significant figure in the Early Church, referred to one or more manuscripts that he was aware of having a particular text.)

1) The earliest manuscripts, Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) and Codex Vaticanus (4th century), end with Mark 16:8, which says,

“And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (ESV)

Other manuscripts that end there include Syriacs (4th century), 304 (12th century), one Coptic Sahidic manuscript, Armenian manuscripts, Georgian manuscripts, Eusebius’ Canons, Hesychius, manuscripts according to Eusebius, manuscripts according to Jerome, and manuscripts according to Severus.

2) The “longer ending” (vv.9-20), which certain churches (denominations?) are very attached to, is found in the majority of texts. These include Codex Alexandrinus (5th century), Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (5th century), Codex Bezae (5th century), Θ (9th century), 33 (9th century), f13 (11th-15th centuries), manuscripts according to Eusebius, manuscripts according to Jerome, manuscripts according to Severus, Irenaeus (via a Latin translation), Apostolic Constitutions, Epiphanius, Severian, Nestorius, Ambrose, and Augustine. Aside from Irenaeus (2nd century), the patristic witnesses mentioned are no earlier than 4th century. It became the most popular ending after the 4th century and was made canonical by the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1564). The text in question reads,

“9 [[Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

12 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.]]” (ESV)

(Please note the double square brackets used by the ESV, which helps set it apart. The whole passage follows an obvious heading that says “[Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.]” Other translations either do something similar or put the whole thing in a footnote.)

Those are the main two. But, once in awhile, you might see reference to other endings, too.

3) The Codex Bobiensis (itk) (~400) has the following “shorter ending” tacked onto verse 8:

“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 footnote)

4) The Codex Washingtonensis (early 5th century) and manuscripts according to Jerome include not only the “longer ending” (#2) but insert the following after verse 14:

“And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not permit God’s truth and power to conquer the evil [unclean] spirits. Therefore, reveal your justice now.” This is what they said to Christ. And Christ replied to them, “The period of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other dreadful things will happen soon. And I was handed over to death for those who have sinned, so that they may return to the truth and sin no more, and so they may inherit the spiritual, incorruptible, and righteous glory in heaven.”” (NLT)

5) A few manuscripts — sorry, I don’t have their names — incorporate the Bobiensis text (#3) with the longer ending (#2).

So, the natural questions to ask are “Where did these different endings come from?” and “Which is the real ending of Mark?”

Codex Alexandrinus - inc. part of Mark's longer ending

Codex Alexandrinus – inc. part of Mark’s longer ending

It should be noted that none of the additions flow very naturally from the text that precedes. For example, the subject of verse 8 is the women, but verse 9 suddenly has Jesus as the subject. Verse 9 also introduces Mary Magdalene as if she were a new character. The traditional, longer ending in particular is of a different style, tone, and vocabulary than the rest of Mark. For example, most everywhere else, the Gospels use the passive verb regarding Jesus’ resurrection. (I.e., The Father did the raising.) But, verse 9 begins with the Greek active aorist participle anastas (“having risen”), which indicates that Jesus raised Himself.

Whether new or transplanted from some other document, the longer ending is obviously an attempt to “fix” the abrupt ending of verse 8. While adding his own theological distinctives, its author appears to have drawn from the Gospels and Acts, which familiarity may help explain the ending’s popularity. (See John 20, Luke 24, and Matthew 28.) Unfortunately, some important details regarding Mary’s report contradict those in Luke and John, so it must be dismissed. The inclusion of additional unbelief (vv.13-14) is questionable (though it does continue one of Mark’s themes), as is the emphasis on baptism as a prerequisite to salvation (v.16). The promise of accompanying signs (e.g., speaking in tongues and protection from snakes) seems to pull from Acts 2:4; 10:46; & 28:3-6. Verse 19 seems to come from the end of Luke, and verse 20 is essentially a summary of the whole book of Acts — very odd to have in a Gospel.

The Codex Bobiensis ending appears to be a succinct attempt to show that the women had followed the angels’ instructions to notify the Apostles after all. I didn’t come across any specific speculations as to who did this, though it was probably a well-meaning scribe who made a best guess as to how Mark would (should?) have finished the piece, given what we know actually did happen. However, in doing so, one must delete the part of v.8 that says “and they said nothing to anyone”. (One Old Latin manuscript does precisely that.)

The Codex Washingtonensis ending is likely a 3rd-century marginal gloss that was added to the text of some manuscripts before the 4th century. The culprit was probably a scribe — possibly influenced by Acts (1:6-7; 3:19-21) and the Epistle of Barnabas (4:9; 15:7) — who wanted to give a reason for the Apostles’ unbelief seen in the longer ending.

“No one has made a good case for the originality of any of the various additions. The historical fact appears to be that various readers, concerned that Mark ended so abruptly, completed the Gospel with a variety of additions. According to [esteemed German Biblical scholar and NT textual critic] Kurt Aland, the shorter and longer endings were composed independently in different geographical locations, and both were probably circulating in the second century. [Esteemed American Biblical scholar and NT textual critic Bruce] Metzger says that the longer ending displays some vocabulary that ‘suggests that the composition of the ending is appropriately located at the end of the first century or in the middle of the second century.'”  — Philip Comfort, Sr. Editor of Bible Reference at Tyndale House Publishers

But, even if Mark did not write any of the above additions, could he have written another ending that got lost and we have yet to discover? After all, why would he leave readers hanging with just an announcement of the resurrection and no appearances? Why make the women look bad — afraid, confused, disobedient? It has been hypothesized that, just as Mark included the fulfillment of all Jesus’ other predictions, he would have recorded an actual appearance of the risen Christ to His disciples, too. There are grammatical reasons to think that verse 7 was supposed to end the paragraph, and verse 8 would have begun another section to end the narrative. It is also very easy to see how an early manuscript could have had this proposed ending torn off. (Would be really cool to find it, eh?)

On the other hand, nothing actually demands that Mark end his Gospel the same way the others did. Mark may very well have felt unworthy or incapable of sufficiently describing the risen Lord and/or simply wanted his readers to imagine for themselves His first post-resurrection appearance. There are also themes of secrecy and failure (by the disciples) in his Gospel that Mark may have wanted to continue. Plus, if there was an original, longer ending of Mark, it must have been lost very soon after it was first written; otherwise, history shows that “variants” tend to enter the textual stream and get preserved somewhere and show up eventually. (Of course, it must be admitted that there may be other variants for various texts that were lost to time and may be found in the future or never at all.) Unfortunately, no evidence has yet been discovered to indicate the existence of another, early, and satisfactory ending of Mark.

Codex Washingtonensis - end of Mark

Codex Washingtonensis – end of Mark

The answer to our second question, then, is that the textual evidence is strongest for Reading #1 (i.e., Mark stopped with v.8), and this is indeed the scholarly consensus. (There are, of course, still scholars who argue in favor of the authenticity of the longer ending or the likelihood of a lost ending.) The earliest extant manuscripts (that preserve this portion of Mark) and some early versions (also mentioned above) end with verse 8. Church fathers Clement, Origen, Cyprian and Cyril of Alexandria knew of no additions, plus there are those manuscripts that Jerome, Severus, and Eusebius referenced that ended with v.8. In particular, in his Quaestiones ad Marinum, Eusebius (3rd-4th centuries) states that…

“accurate copies end their text of the Marcan account with the words of the young man whom the women saw, and who said to them: “‘Do not be afraid; it is Jesus the Nazarene that you are looking for, etc. … ’”, after which it adds: “And when they heard this, they ran away, and said nothing to anyone, because they were frightened.” That is where the text does end, in almost all copies of the gospel according to Mark. What occasionally follows in some copies, not all, would be extraneous, most particularly if it contained something contradictory to the evidence of the other evangelists.”

Among those later manuscripts that do include vv.9-20, some mark them off with obeli to indicate their questionable pedigree, while others include marginal notes about the section being absent from the most ancient texts.

So, it seems pretty clear to me, at least, that the inspired autograph (i.e., original manuscript) of Mark’s Gospel almost certainly ended with verse 8. But, I see no problem with including the “longer ending” (and maybe the others) in modern translations, as long as it is made clear that those verses were added later by well-meaning but misguided scribes. The fact that the longer ending of Mark is most likely not inspired and therefore not authoritative should not be of great concern (except by backwoods snake-handlers), because it is not necessary for supporting any major, orthodox doctrines or practices. Likewise, nothing in it should be used as prooftext for a particular doctrine or practice.

The work that goes into examining the biblical texts in such detail and figures out things like this should be an encouragement to the rest of us and an assurance that we know with a very high degree of probability what the inspired autographs actually said.

(H/T Which Bible Translation Should I Use?, esp. the section by Philip Comfort)


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