Realms of Faith



Manuscript evidence in Mark 16

If you turn to Mark chapter 16 in a modern Bible translation, you will probably find a note somewhere that says that certain "early and important" manuscripts do not contain verses 9 through 20. A few translations also have a short paragraph of text that is not assigned a verse number. Should these verses be part of the Bible, if they're missing from these manuscripts?

Before answering this question, I'd first like to emphasize that this is not a liberal/conservative issue. Those who believe that the Bible is merely a human book don't really have much basis for including or excluding verses from the Bible other than tradition. But for evangelicals who believe the Bible is inspired, it is important to know that the text we see on the page is a good translation of words inspired by God. When it comes to the Gospels, we believe that what was inspired is what the author included in the released form of his book.

Manuscripts differ from one another because they were copied by hand, and the copyists made some mistakes or intentional changes along the way. Where they differ, we have to compare these manuscripts with one another to determine which reading matches what the author originally wrote. This task is called textual criticism. In most cases it is relatively easy, and evangelical Bible scholars are basically in agreement for most of these variations.

There are a number of things that make the Mark 16 issue quite difficult. First is the length of the reading in question. Most textual variants involve the order or form of one to four words, or small insertions, omissions, or substitutions. There are a number of places in the Gospels where an entire verse is in question. But only here and in John 7:53-8:11 is an entire passage present in some texts and absent in others. It seems unlikely that anyone would insert such a large section to the Bible, and equally unlikely that they would and could remove it.

The second major problem is that the passage is absent in two of the most important manuscripts but present almost everywhere else. Thus both the presence and absence of the passage have impressive support.

Third, quotations from early Christians indicate that the passage was known very early on, but also that it was absent in some manuscripts very early. Both situations predate the manuscripts that exist today.

Let's take a close look at the evidence for the different endings we see:


1. A few witnesses indicate that Mark 16:1-8 ends the book.

2. One witness has an insertion in verse 3 and the "shorter ending."

3. Quite a few manuscripts follow 16:8 with the shorter ending, and then add verses 9-20.

4. Some manuscripts follow 16:8 with verses 9:20 and add additional material between verses 14 and 15.

5. Quite a few manuscripts follow 16:8 with verses 9-20, but indicate that the verses are in doubt.

6. The remaining manuscripts follow 16:8 with verses 9-20 without comment.


Primary theories of Mark's ending

  1. All the extant additions to 16:1-8 are attempts by scribes to account for the apparent lack of completion to the book.
  2. Verses 9-20 are original, and the shorter ending is an attempt by scribes to fill the gap where verses 9-20 were somehow unknown.

My (Somewhat Technical) Take

The question of the ending of Mark's gospel revolves around developments that preceded any of the extant manuscripts or citations. As far back as the 200s at least, there were some manuscripts ending at verse 8 and some at verse 20. The history of transmission from that point onward makes sense. Especially with such a long passage, it may be better to include something spurious that can always be disregarded upon future evidence, than to allow a possibly original reading to pass into obscurity. (This is why, in my opinion, the most important feature of a Greek New Tesatment is its textual apparatus listing variant readings. This way the editors leave their decisions open to testing.) The testimony of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are not determinative here, for this is a unique problem that can't simply be solved by appeal to a particular text-type. Nor is internal evidence very helpful. Arguments based on vocabulary, grammar, and interpretive issues are hard to establish objectively. The issue is one of probability based on the evidence we have: was the passage more likely to be omitted or added?

The apparent absence of such a long passage over such a wide area of indicated by the evidence, along with the fact that the verse-8 ending was apparently the majority reading known to Jerome, suggest to me that the passage is not original. If the passage were omitted, the deletion must have happened more than once, or else the scribes (who knew the Bible well) would certainly have caught the mistake and either sought out another manuscript or made a note that text was missing. Nor does it seem likely to me that some conspiracy is responsible for removing these verses. On the other hand, if I had to compose an ending for Mark, given 16:1-8, I would probably do much was the author of 9-20 did--summarize post-resurrection appearances from the other Gospels and include something similar to the Great Commission.

As for the content of the passage, there is no doctrine or story here that does not appear elsewhere; the passage is not "crucial" in that sense. However, there are some interpretive pitfalls--such as Jesus appearing "in another form," the baptism issue, and the signs of verses 17 and 18--that have led some to feel that this passage doesn't meet the standard of consistency with the rest of Scripture. But all God's revelation is important, and there remains enough possibility that the text is inspired (perhaps added by an apostle after the Gospel began circulating) that I think Bible versions should include it. However, I also think a footnote or other indication should make the reader aware that there is at least some question as to its originality.


For an evidence-based argument that Mark 16:9-20 are original, see this off-site discussion.

For a concise statement of my beliefs about the Bible, see my Declaration of Faith.


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