The rejection of the ending of Mark, formally known as the “longer ending of Mark”, is a Canonical crisis. In this article, I want to make a case for why people who read and use modern Bible translations should be outraged at the brackets and footnotes in their Bible at Mark 16:9-20. This is the textual variant that ultimately led me to putting down my ESV and picking up an NKJV, and then a KJV. When I understood the reason that my Bible instructed me to doubt this passage, I realized the methods which put the brackets and footnotes in my Bible were not to be trusted. The primary reason that I did not believe this passage to be Scripture was due to my blind adherence to things I had heard, not the reality of the data. The quickness with which I cast God’s Word into the trash caused me to be deeply remorseful, and I’m not alone in that . Not only had I been catechized to reject the ending of the Gospel of Mark, but I was instructed to berate others who were “foolish” enough to believe it is original. Meanwhile, enemies of the faith delight in the fact that Christians boldly reject this passage, because it proves their point that the Bible is not inspired. I will now walk through the data that caused me to be deeply remorseful of casting this passage aside.
The External Evidence
The first step in my journey was to examine the actual manuscript evidence for and against the passage. There are over 1,600 extant manuscripts of Mark, and only three of them end at verse 8. The decision to remove it, or delegate it to brackets, was made on the basis of only two of these. When I discovered this, I was dismayed. I had been using the argument that “we have thousands and thousands of manuscripts,” and I realized, based on my own position of the text, that I could not responsibly use this apologetic argument. My argument for the text, at least in the Gospel of Mark, was not based on thousands of manuscripts, just two. Yet even in one of these manuscripts (03), there is a space left for the ending of Mark, as though the scribe knew about the ending and excluded it. I later discovered that text-critics such as H.C. Hoskier believed that very manuscript to be created by a Unitarian, and that Erasmus thought the manuscript to be a choppy mash of Latin versional readings. I realized, that only some textual scholars thought these manuscripts to be “best”, and my research seemed to be demonstrating that this claim of high quality was rather vacuous indeed. I was operating on the theory that these two manuscripts represented the only text-form in the early church, which I discovered has been mostly abandoned. This is due to the Byzantine readings found in the Papyri, and the statistical analysis done by the CBGM. Further, and most shocking to me at the time, is that the two manuscripts in question do not look like the rest of the thousands of extant manuscripts of Mark. Below is the % of agreement that these two manuscripts share with the rest of the manuscripts of Mark – most of them are not even close enough to be cousins, let alone direct ancestors.
Codex Vaticanus (03) and Codex Sinaiticus (01), the two early manuscripts in question, do not agree with any other extant manuscript in the places examined in Mark in a significant way, other than minuscule 2427, which has been known to be a 19th century forgery since 2006. What these numbers mean is that these manuscripts look very different from the rest of the manuscripts of Mark. I realized I could not responsibly claim that these two manuscripts were “earliest and best”. There was no way I could defend that in any sort of apologetic scenario, at least. I abandoned this belief on the grounds of two realities: 1) The data shows that different text forms were contemporaries of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, so they weren’t necessarily “earliest”, just surviving and 2) these manuscripts did not look like the rest of the thousands of manuscripts I was constantly appealing to in apologetic scenarios. Further, I found it quite easy to demonstrate that there were other manuscripts circulating at the time which had the longer ending of Mark in it! Even Bart Ehrman admits as much (Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 78,79). This is a simple fact, considering the amount of quotations from the ending of Mark found in patristic writings, including Papias (110AD), Justin Martyr (160AD), Tatian (172AD), and Ireneaus (184AD). The most compelling of these witnesses is Irenaeus, who directly quotes Mark 16:19 in the third book of Against Heresies. “Also, towards the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark says: ‘So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God.’” So the passage most certainly existed prior to its exclusion in the two manuscripts in question. Hierocles(or porphyry), a pagan apologist, even provokes his Christian reader to drink poison, quoting the ending of Mark. It seems that atheists never tire of that retort.
In order to reject this passage from an evidentiary standpoint is to completely ignore not only the manuscript data, but also the patristic citations which predate our earliest surviving manuscripts. If manuscript data does not matter, and patristic sources do not matter, than what does matter? Well, tradition matters, apparently. See, up until recently, the theory about the ending of Mark was that it was simply lost to time. The book did not initially end at verse 8, but the true ending has been lost. Well that doesn’t quite work for most Christians, so other theories had to be contrived to hold onto the supremacy of these two manuscripts. Rather than adopting the ending that is found in over 1,600 manuscripts, the default position of the 20th century has lingered in modern Bibles in the form of brackets and footnotes. The reason for this? Some of the earliest manuscripts don’t have it. “Some”, as though the number of manuscripts cannot be counted or determined. It seems that the editors of Crossway might want to consider being more precise, but I imagine it would be harder to justify those brackets if the reader knew the actual number. Even the RV, which is the ESV’s predecessor, contained this information. I still, to this day, feel betrayed by the way that my ESV presented that information in my Bible. I felt further betrayed by all of the people who knew this information and still told me that the ending of Mark was not Scripture.
The Internal and Theological Evidence
If you are a Christian, you believe that the Bible was inspired by God. That means that the New Testament should be coherent, both grammatically and theologically. That is reality that kept me assured during my examination of the ending of Mark. I figured if God had truly preserved His Word, there would be a simple answer to whether or not this passage was indeed Scripture. I found that there was, and overwhelmingly so. I didn’t even need to go sifting through all of the evidence to know what the true reading of the ending of Mark was, the answer was laid out in the doctrine of Scripture in my London Baptist Confession of Faith.
“We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church of God to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, and the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, and many other incomparable excellencies, and entire perfections therefore, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (LBCF 1.5).
If Mark ends at verse 8, there is a significant problem, at least from a confessional standpoint. The problem is that verse 8 requires a verse 9 due to its grammar. There is no place in the whole of ancient Greek literature that ends a narrative with the word “for” (γαρ). This means that Mark did not stop writing at verse 8, if the assumption is that the Scriptures were at least perfect in the autograph. So if Mark did not stop writing at verse 8, and the Bible is indeed inspired and would not have included such a basic grammatical error, I figured perhaps it is the case that the reading that occurs in over 1,600 manuscripts should be considered over and above the two manuscripts which contain this idiosyncratic grammar mistake. In order to adopt the abrupt ending of Mark, I could not say that the Bible had any sort of “majesty of style” because it in fact, contains this atrocious grammar error at the “ending” of Mark.
Further, if Mark ends at verse 8, there is a basic theological problem that puts the Bible at odds with itself. The confession says that the Bible should be esteemed on the account of “the consent of all the parts.” If the Gospel of Mark ends at verse 8, it does not consent with all the parts of Scripture. It excludes an appearance account, which is included in Matthew, Luke, John, and even in Paul’s testimony of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. That means that Mark is apparently the only Gospel writer who didn’t have his story straight.
Even Paul, who wasn’t there to experience the life of Jesus, has his facts in line. It is vital that the Gospel that Christians use contains the life, death, burial, resurrection, and appearance of Jesus. I figured that Mark would not have been ignorant to this. It seemed illogical in fact, to affirm the opposite, that Mark would have excluded such a fundamental detail. The burial and appearance are crucial to affirming two fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith: 1) That Jesus was very man and actually died, and 2) that after dying, Christ was raised up and thus very God. Without the appearance, there is no actual vindication of the latter. Turretin even affirmed this truth in saying that the ending of Mark was necessary for establishing the truth of the Gospel account, which I imagine he included as a means to respond to people like me, who were calling the passage into question. At first I said that it didn’t matter because this account is available in other places, but I was making the assumption that early readers of Mark had access to those other witnesses. See, I sat through a semester at Arizona State University where I heard all of the theories of Bauer and Ehrman, so I should have known better than to make that argument. If one takes the higher critical perspective of Markan priority, that Mark was the first Gospel, than the earliest Christians did not have a Gospel account which vindicated the truth of the resurrection. Which is to say, that the only apologetic defense of the Gospel I had to the actual critics of the faith was essentially to say, “Well that’s just wrong!” Kant and Kierkegard would have been proud of me.
At the end of my research on the ending of Mark, I found that there was no good reason to continue propagating the idea that the Gospel of Mark ends with poor grammar, two scared women, and no vindication of the resurrection. If one of the uses of the Bible is to defeat the enemies of the faith in debate, than this clearly was not the way to go about it. In this journey, I also learned something vitally important – that the purpose of the Bible was not to defend the faith, it was to have faith and increase in faith. It was the means that God had given me to commune with Him. The majority of the Christian church, who reads their Bible to hear the voice of their Shepherd, should not be subject to the threadbare theories of higher and lower critics in the footnotes of their Bible. There are certain places that warrant a serious discussion regarding textual variants by Christians, this is not one of them.
Not only is the evidence overwhelmingly in support of this passage being original, it is impossible to responsibly say that rejecting this passage is in line with a Reformed, confessional view. Not only does it violate the basic principles of the doctrine of Scripture in 1.5, it ignores the fact that doctrines are actually built upon the ending of Mark as a proof text (WCF 28:4; LBCF 7.2). In both the LBCF and the Westminster Larger Catechism, this passage is used to establish the ascension of Christ, which is doctrinally significant. Even more important to me, was how I had to view the Bible as a whole if I accepted the theory that the ending of Mark was not original. I had to believe that a passage of Scripture has fallen away, lost to time, and cannot be recovered. Since this must be true for the ending of Mark, I might as well apply that theory to every other area of textual variation in the New and Old Testament texts. The theories of higher critical thought must be adopted to explain how the text evolved, and justify the ongoing effort to reconstruct this lost bible. I later discovered that is exactly what is being done by nearly every textual scholar, so it seems I was not alone in my conclusions.
In my examination of just one textual variant, I came to a significant conclusion. Using Dr. Jeff Riddle’s words, we are living in the age of a Canonical crisis. The fact that the Gospel of John as it exists in the NA28 is different than the Gospel of John as it exists in the unpublished Editio Critica Maior demonstrates this reality. Christians are reading the Gospel of John as it existed in 2012, while the “true” Gospel of John is currently being constructed in Munster, Germany. Who knows if the John that is produced out of the black box sometime in the next 10 years will be the same as the Gospel of John as it is being read now? I wonder what Schrodinger would think of this paradox?
It is important that Christians realize that the artificial divide between higher and lower criticism is just that – artificial. The footnote which has informed Christians to call into doubt the text of Holy Scripture at the end of Mark is not purely informed by manuscript data. Science is done by the intellect, and the intellect of man is terribly limited and subjective. Theories must be applied, and there is not a single textual scholar who approaches the text without assumptions. The deconstruction of the New Testament text is higher criticism restrained by the religious feelings of Protestants who actually buy Bibles. Honest scholars admit as much. “With the rise of an Enlightenment turn to ‘science,’ and informed by a Protestant preference for ‘the original,’ however, critics like Johann Jakob Griesbach, Karl Lachmann, Constantin Von Tischendorf, Samuel Tragelles, and finally, B.F. Westcott and F.J.A.; Hort reevaluated the evidence…” (Knust & Wasserman, To Cast the First Stone, 16). The reevaluation of the manuscript data in the 19th century is what unseated this passage in Mark from the canon, and the church complied. The people of God do not have to comply with this opinion, and that is the reality. Read the ending of Mark, and know that it is authentic.
Post Script: A Personal Note from the Author
I do not have the scholarly credentials, but I do have one unique qualification that I believe is important. I am a part of the first generation of Christians who came to faith after the battle for the Bible. My generation is feeling the impact of a changing Bible harder than any other generation to date. I was taught how to read my Bible after the longer ending of Mark had been overwhelmingly dismissed. When I approached bracketed texts, I ignored them, because that is what I was told to do. I did not consider the theological impact of removed texts because modern exegesis and hermeneutics are designed around a shifting text. That is why, when I began to study historical protestant theology, these modern hermeneutical methods were so crazy to me. If doctrine cannot be established upon contested verses, what place is left to build doctrine upon? The answer is very few places, and the diamonds in the apparatus of the NA28 are proof of that. The Reformed believed that every word, all Scripture, should be used. That is why it was such a shock to me when I discovered the reasons that these texts were put into brackets. I was raised in a generation of skeptics, and I did not become converted under the assumption that I would need to take a Kantian leap of faith to believe in my Bible. Christians in my generation should not have to believe that they must wait until 2030 to read God’s Word. That is unprecedented in the history of the church. If the Bible isn’t going to be ready for another ten years, what is the point of even reading it until then? The answer is simple: there isn’t a good reason to read it until then, or after then for that matter.
If the longer ending of Mark is not Scripture, what then is Scripture? What piece of the text cannot be put under the same scrutiny if all it takes is one shoddy manuscript that is stored in the Vatican to change the whole Bible? How many manuscripts would it take to unseat John 3:16 or Romans 8:28? The reality is, the modern Bible is being held together by the people that read it, not the evaluation of manuscripts. The Bible becomes smaller with each implementation of text-critical methods. I imagine that the rapid progression of the modern text-critical effort is directly related to the fact that people simply don’t read their Bibles anymore. It’s easy to ignore footnotes and brackets and a constantly changing text if people don’t know that anything has changed in the first place.
It is clear that something needs to change, or the Christian church will be in deep trouble by 2030 when scholars begin teaching the people of God how to construct their own Bible using online software. Yes, that is the reality, not some speculation. The split readings in the ECM will eventually make their way into the text of translations, and by that time, the Christian will not have a Bible or a defense for the Bible. If the CBGM has proven one thing, it is that none of the scholars using it can determine what the original said. My hope is that things will change before that happens, but time will tell.