The conclusion to Mark’s Gospel is a mystery. Any modern English translation calls attention to this fact. Most have a line between verses 8 and 9 separating the ending from the rest of the book. The old Greek Bible scholar, A.T. Robertson calls this “the most important variant reading in the whole New Testament.”[i]
What is a “Textual Variant”?
Before the invention of the printing press, books were laboriously copied by hand. Sometimes professional scribes did this but often, poor Christians who just wanted their own copies of God’s Word, made them. As copies were made of copies some “errors” (variances) crept into the text. Words were spelled differently; more commonly known words (and more familiar quotations from other gospels) were substituted for unfamiliar ones. Sometimes, in an effort to “mass produce” Bibles, one person would read the text to a room full of scribes who would write it down. In Greek, just as in English, many words sound alike (“right” and “write;” “there,” “they’re” and “their”). A scribe might absent-mindedly copy down the wrong one. Sometimes the eye might skip over a word or repeat the same word twice.
What are you going to do? If you are making your own copy of the Bible and you have several copies in front of you, some of them might differ a little from the rest. Perhaps one uses one word while another uses a different word. How do you weigh your choices? The study of how to make that decision is called “textual criticism.” (A “text critic” isn’t “critical” in the sense of skeptical. He is just “careful.”)
All of these variants are relatively minor – mere matters of spelling and punctuation – but some were more serious and involved longer passages. There aren’t many. The major variants are John 7:53-8:11 (The story of the woman caught in adultery); Acts 8:36 (The Ethiopian Eunuch’s confession); 1 John 5:7, 8 (The witnesses in heaven); and the conclusion to Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:9-20).
It is important to remember: even if we remove these “suspicious” passages from the New Testament, no major doctrine is threatened. As J.W. McGarvey pointed out about the conclusion of Mark over 100 years ago:
Let it first be observed, that it is not the authenticity of the passage, by which is meant the historical correctness of its representations, that is called in question, but only its genuineness as a part of Mark’s original manuscript.[ii]
How Does Mark End?
There are five theories concerning the ending of Mark:
- Mark 16:8 is the authentic conclusion.
- Mark 16:8 is the unfinished ending to the Gospel.
- The so-called “shorter ending” is correct.
- The actual ending has been lost.
- Mark 16:9-20 is the authentic ending of Mark.
Theory 1: Mark 16:8 is the authentic conclusion
Surprisingly, most text critics today support this view. The original Revised Standard Version of the New Testament concluded at this point. Many very important ancient manuscripts stop here.[iii]
There are thousands of ancient copies of the New Testament and portions of the New Testament. These are generally gathered into geographical groupings or families. They seem related to one another. In this case the Alexandrian witnesses seem to omit verses 9-20 while the Western authorities include it. The Eastern witnesses are fairly evenly divided. It would seem then the manuscripts are inconclusive.
We could try another approach. “Internal Evidence” refers to comparing the language and grammar of the suspicious passage with that of the rest of the book. Does it sound like Mark’s writing? We’ll discuss this idea more fully when we examine the fifth theory (the longer ending, vss. 9-20, is authentic).
But intrinsically, does it seem likely Mark would conclude his great gospel with the words “For they were afraid”? Doesn’t that seem too abrupt? Scholars who believe that’s how the gospel should end suggest the words εφοβουντο γαρ (“For they were afraid”) should be translated “For they were filled with holy awe.” However that reaction wouldn’t explain why “they said nothing to anyone.” Frank Kermode concludes if we accept verse 8 as the authentic conclusion, “We have to explain why a book that begins so triumphantly and makes promises of a certain kind ends in silence and dismay, without fulfilling the promises.”[iv]
Theory 2: Mark 16:8 is the unfinished ending
Of course it is possible that Mark was somehow prevented from completing his Gospel through persecution or premature death but there is no way of proving this conclusion one-way or the other. It seems very strange that Mark would be so close to completion – a few paragraphs at most – and not be able to finish his book! This theory is not very satisfying.
Theory 3: The “Shorter Ending” is correct
This suggestion is the most universally rejected theory. The manuscript evidence is very weak.[v] The language and grammar are also very unlike anything Mark wrote earlier. It was obviously written to create a satisfactory ending to the Gospel but it actually contradicts Mark. The authentic Gospel states, “they said nothing to anyone” but the shorter ending goes on to say what they said!
Apparently sometime in the late second or early third century, copies of Mark’s Gospel were circulating that concluded at verse 8. Someone composed the shorter ending in order to close Mark’s account. Thus for a period of time Mark must have circulated without an ending, with the shorter ending, and with the longer ending.
Theory 4: The Actual Ending Has Been Lost
There is a possibility the actual ending was lost at a very early date. Perhaps the end of the scroll was destroyed. Scholars have many interesting speculations about what that ending might have included. (For example it might have ended with a detailed account of the formation of the Jerusalem Church or a Galilean reunion as in Matthew. [Mark 14:28; 16:7]).
However, if the ending was destroyed, it must have happened at a very early date and Mark must have been unable to re-write it. Frankly it seems best to conclude we have the original ending: either the text ended with verse eight or Mark penned verses 9-20 and they became detached from an early copy.
Theory 5: Verses 9 – 20 are Authentic
First, the “Longer Ending” (vss. 9-20) was known and quoted by many early Christian Fathers including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Vincentius, Porphyry, Eusebius and Ambrose (and even a non-Christian, Celsus). However, they also knew of copies that did not include these verses. The problem is a very old one!
If we look at the language and style of the conclusion and compare it with the rest of Mark’s Gospel, it is also inconclusive. The arguments could be interpreted either way: it is Mark’s style, or it isn’t Mark’s style.
So if the Longer Ending was part of the original, how did it become separated? Some feel it was removed because it was embarrassing. The church could no longer drink deadly poison or handle snakes and so they removed the last page sometime in the second century. That suggestion seems very bold and impious! Is there any evidence Christians boldly removed parts of the text? Perhaps in the case of Marcion the Heretic but that is preciously why he was called a heretic! There is little reason to suppose orthodox believers tampered with the text.
The only suggestion of merit hypothesizes one of the early copies of Mark became damaged – perhaps an Alexandrian copy since the Alexandrian families tend to omit these verses – while other copies were complete and formed the Western tradition that included verses 9 through 20.
So What is the Answer?
There is no way to prove or disprove either Theory 2 (The Unfinished Gospel) or Theory 4 (The Actual Ending has been Lost). Theory 3 (The “Shorter Ending”) has little to commend it. That leaves us to choose between the first theory (Mark ends at verse 8) and the last theory (The “Longer Ending.”) While certainty isn’t possible, concluding with “For they were afraid” is too unsatisfying to commend as the solution. This leaves us with including verses 9 – 20. Obviously some of the very early manuscripts do not include these verses and so they will always be “suspect.” Perhaps we can be content with the same answer Origen gave to the question, Who wrote Hebrews? “Only God knows with certainty.”
For now I am happy with the interesting line drawn between the verses for it shows just how seriously Christian judge anything that claims to be the Holy Word of God.
[i] A.T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, (Nashville: Broadman, 1925), p. 214.
[ii] J.W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew—Mark, (Delight Arkansas: Gospel Light reprint of 1871 ed.), p. 377.
[iii] B, Aleph, and 304 conclude here as does the Old Latin Codex Bobiensis (although it includes the shorter ending). The Sinaitic Syriac, about 100 Armenian manuscripts and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts end with verse 8
[iv] Quoted in Petersen, “When is the End not the End?”, Interpretation, April 1980, p. 151.
[v] “Several witnesses, including four uncial Greek manuscripts of the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries (019, 044, 099, 0112), as well as Old Latin (k), the margin of the Harclean Syriac, several Sahidic and Bohairic manuscripts, and not a few Ethiopic manuscripts, continue after verse 8 as follows (with trifling variations): “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this Jesus himself sent out b means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 123.