Does the Ending Matter? Mark 16

After Mark 16:8 the New International Version adds the bracketed statement "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20." But then they print some additional material (vv. 9-20). What are readers to do? Should they ignore what follows and consider Mark 16:8 as the ending of this Gospel? Should they pay some attention to vv. 9-20 but not really regard them as part of the Bible, an interesting but non-scriptural accretion? And have the NIV editors really described the textual evidence regarding these verses appropriately? What’s a pastor to do who’s preaching Mark’s Gospel? How do you explain what all this is about? Tricky stuff!

There is no question that this Gospel’s ending is a textual challenge. But so are other parts of the Bible (e.g. the ending of Romans, the double text in Acts, etc.). We have to deal with the data honestly and carefully.

1. The earliest evidence we have for the ending of Mark’s Gospel comes from the latter half of the second century. In the writings of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus there seems to be allusion and quotation from Mark 16:9-20, suggesting that their copies of this Gospel included the longer ending. It also seems that Justin’s protégé, Tatian, knew the longer ending when he created his Gospel Synopsis (Diatessaron) in this same period. Whether these early church pastor-scholars knew of a short form of Mark’s Gospel cannot be determined. So the earliest references to Mark seem to know a form of this Gospel that ends with 16:20.

2. It is true that two notable and valuable codices dating to the 4th century (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) do not have the longer ending in their current form. It is their evidence primarily that leads the NIV and other modern translations to make the kinds of statements they do after Mark 16:8. However, this is not the whole story.

First, in the case of Vaticanus, the scribe at the end of Mark’s Gospel leaves a column and half empty, beginning Luke’s Gospel on a fresh page. Although the scribes who wrote Vaticanus left gaps at the end of other books, these gaps correspond to the end of sections (i.e. Nehemiah (2 Esdras) and Psalms; Tobit and Hosea). Two scribes produced Vaticanus and these breaks correlate to the division of their labours or the division between the Old and New Testaments (i.e. Daniel and Matthew). However, in the case of Mark’s Gospel, the gap at the end does not correlate to such a division. One scribe copied the New Testament materials in Vaticanus. This gap between Mark and Luke does suggest that the scribe knew something was missing and perhaps left space for it to be added. Although the scribe did not mark this textual alteration in his usual manner, leaving a gap in the text seems to have been the signal that something was omitted.

In the case of Sinaiticus, it is interesting to note that precisely where Mark ends, the pages in the original manuscript has been replaced with different pages produced by another scribe. This scribe is one of those that produced Vaticanus (but not the one that produced the New Testament section of Vaticanus). H.J.M.Milne and T.C.Skeat in their publication Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus  (1938) hypothesize that this replacement occurred because the original scribe "must have duplicated a long passage in the course of writing [Luke]" (p.10).  While they argue against the original scribe’s inclusion of Mark 16:9-20 (because in their view this ending cannot fit in the space available), they still have to conjecture that the original scribe made a massive textual error of some sort that had to be remedied. I would conclude that we cannot tell what ending for Mark Sinaiticus may have had originally. To postulate some massive corruption at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel that has no basis in the textual history of Luke’s Gospel rather then attribute this folio change to known difficulties with the ending of Mark’s Gospel seems odd.

3. Some argue on the basis of language usage that 16:9-20 is by a different hand or that 16:8 forms a very dramatic and suitable ending to the Gospel. There are some linguistic and lexical differences between Mark 1-16:8 and 16:9-20. However, we have to be careful not to exaggerate them. Further whether 16:8 is an appropriate ending depends on how one understands the narrative purpose of the writer. For example, if this Gospel story, which emphasizes discipleship, ends with all Jesus’ followers abandoning him and paralyzed by fear, what hope does this give subsequent believers that they will succeed where others failed? 

 We cannot solve such difficult questions in the short scope of a blog. My point is simply this — let us be careful to state the evidence clearly so that biblical readers can make a truely informed decision. The cryptic statement by the NIV editors after Mark 16:8 fails in my opinion to serve the readers adequately. The ending of Mark’s Gospel is too important and needs more careful consideration.