Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The End, or Is It? Mark 16:9-20

It is possible that many of us have read through the Gospel of Mark and never noticed that the last twelve verses are the subject of no small controversy. Others perhaps have discovered a footnote, a marginal note, or some other indication of the question concerning the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. For example, your Bible may place these verses in brackets or contain a note in the margin or at the bottom of the page that says something like, “Some of the earliest manuscripts (or “mss.”) do not contain verses (or “vv.”) 9-20.” Some versions even included additional material that is of even more questionable authenticity.

Southern Baptists have always been known as a “people of the Book.” We unashamedly uphold the idea of an inspired, infallible, inerrant Bible, as indicated in 2 Timothy 3:16—“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Our view of the Bible is succinctly stated in the current edition of The Baptist Faith and Message (2000). It reads:
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.
Over the last several decades, Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals have sought to clarify what we mean when we say we believe the Bible is “inerrant” (having no errors). There are many who insist that the Bible cannot be inerrant because of what they perceive to be contradictions, inaccuracies, and variations found in the manuscripts and versions of the Bible that have been handed down through the centuries. On the other hand, there are many who insist that the perceived contradictions only represent flawed interpretations, the inaccuracies are due to a lack of full information or literary license, and that the textual variations can be explained satisfactorily.

In October, 1978, a gathering of more than 200 prominent evangelical leaders produced a document known as “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” consisting of a series of statements about what we believe as well as what we do not believe concerning biblical inerrancy. This document affirms the belief that “inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine” (Article VII). The divine origin and inspiration of the Bible guarantees “true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write” (Article IX). The statement goes on to say, “We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture” (Article X).

The “autographic text” (or “autographs”) refers to the actual original documents written by the human biblical writers under the inspiration of the Spirit. It must be admitted up front that all of these have disappeared with the passage of time, leaving us only with ancient copies, translations, and quotations of the original documents. These ancient texts range in size from scraps little larger than postage stamps to complete manuscripts of the Bible. There are over 5,600 New Testament manuscripts and fragments available to us in the Greek language alone, dating from the second to fifteenth centuries. In addition, we have at our disposal over 19,000 early translations of the New Testament. These startling figures assure us that we have more material with which to deal in handling the New Testament than any other work of ancient literature. From the study and comparison of these existing documents, we are able to arrive with confidence at conclusions regarding the wording of the original autographs. What is particularly comforting for Christians to know is that across all of these documents, there is an alarming consistency of agreement found, with relatively little variation in wording, and virtually no variation in meaning or substance.

Where variations do occur in the ancient manuscripts, usually they only involve a word, a sentence, or very brief segment of text. There are two passages of considerable length which produce concerns of authenticity for us: John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20. When it comes to these two lengthy passages, we find very old manuscripts that include them and very old manuscripts that omit them. Even though there is little at stake in these passages in terms of Christian doctrine or practice, readers cannot help being concerned over the uncertainty that exists with two such sizeable passages. Whether a passage is brief or long, an attempt must be made to determine which of the variations is most likely original, and thereby inerrant and authoritative. An entire field of biblical studies is devoted to this, called “textual criticism.”

Textual criticism is defined as the scholarly discipline of establishing the text as near to the original as possible or probable. For New Testament work, the scholar will use ancient Greek manuscripts and portions, early translations of the New Testament into other languages (also called “versions”), and the writings of the earliest Christian leaders (commonly referred to as the Church Fathers). We have manuscript fragments accessible today that dates back to at least the early second century, less than a half-century after the original writings. In addition, the writings of the Fathers are very early, and so thorough were they in quoting the New Testament writings that it can been said that “if all the New Testament manuscripts were destroyed, the text of the New Testament could still be restored from the quotations made by the church fathers.”

The variations that are found among the ancient documents are attributable to several possible causes. We must bear in mind that prior to the printing press, Bibles and other works of literature were meticulously copied by hand. Even the best of scholars was merely human and prone to making mistakes. Beyond accidents, on occasion some scribes would intentionally alter the text of Scripture. Most of these were likely probably pure-hearted attempts to help the readers of the Bible. If we put ourselves into the shoes of these scribes, we can envision their desire to make the reading of the Bible as simple as possible. I have often imagined the scribe enjoying dinner with his peers and talking about his day’s accomplishments. It is much more likely that he may say, “Today, I took a difficult passage and made it easier to understand,” than that he would say, “Today, I really confounded a relatively simple text just for the fun of it.” We must remember that these were pious, godly, skilled laborers who were entrusted with a tremendous responsibility for their generation and those to follow.

By understanding context of a passage, the teachings of the Bible at large, and the tendencies of scribes, we are able to come to near-certain conclusions on most textual variations regarding the original wording of the inspired autographs. On most of the variations found in the New Testament the scholars are unanimous or else the consensus is so strong to eliminate any serious doubt about the wording. The translators of our English versions have engaged in this practice tirelessly for months and years before deciding on the final wording of a passage. We can have confidence that the Bibles we hold in our hands are the inerrant and authoritative Word of God and that they faithfully reflect what was written in the original first-century documents. However, Mark 16:9-20 presents what is likely the most controversial and uncertain case where scholarly consensus has yet to be found. This passage has been called “the greatest of all literary mysteries” and “the gravest textual problem in the New Testament.”

There are at least five possible endings to Mark that can been found in the ancient documents. One of them is found in the italicized words following v20 in the NASB. In addition to manuscripts which end with this statement are those which find this statement sandwiched between verses 8 and 9. One manuscript has been found that contains a mysterious passage between verses 14 and 15. Because this manuscript was discovered by Charles Freer, the cryptic statement has come to be known as the Freer Logion. The intermediate ending and the Freer Logion both contain language and ideas that are so foreign to the rest of the New Testament that they are immediately suspicious. Combine this with the rarity of these passages in the manuscripts and the similarity between these and the second century writings of various groups of heretics and we are left to conclude with virtually every New Testament scholar that these possible endings of Mark are plainly out of the question. This leaves us with only two viable options. The Gospel According to Mark either ends at verse 8 (what I call “the short ending”) or at verse 20 (which I call “the long ending”). When I refer to the “Long Ending,” I mean verses 9 through 20. When I refer to the Short Ending, I am referring to verse 8.

It is comforting to know from the start that, rightly interpreted, neither of these passages would cause readers to fall into great heresy. Most of what is found in the Long Ending, for example, is also taught elsewhere in the New Testament. So this is not a question of orthodoxy and heresy. There are conservative and liberal scholars who hold to the originality of the Long Ending, as well as conservative and liberal scholars who reject the Long Ending. Also, it must be recognized that each of the views has certain strengths in its favor and weaknesses working against it. This is a complex problem which will not be easily resolved. We are searching for what seems to be the most comprehensive solution, and even that solution may not be problem free. There are likely to be loose ends left untied in either possible view. It is safe to say that apart from the very unlikely event of an unprecedented manuscript discovery, we will probably be wrestling with the issue until Jesus returns.

A very strong case can be made for the originality and authenticity of the Long Ending, Mark 16:9-20, which is found in most of our English Bibles. The passage is found in an overwhelming majority (at least 95%) of ancient manuscripts and versions, including many which are very early and considered to be very important. However, in many of these manuscripts, scribes have included notations and symbols that indicate there was some debate over the authenticity of the Long Ending even very early in the transmission process. The earliest complete manuscripts of Mark that we have access today are from the fourth century and are known as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. Both of these manuscripts lack verses 9 through 20. This long ending is also absent in the oldest Latin version, the oldest Syriac version, approximately one hundred Armenian versions (including almost all of the earliest ones), several important Ethiopic texts, including the oldest Coptic New Testament, and the two oldest Georgian versions.

One of the earliest references to the Long Ending is found in the writings of Irenaeus around AD 180. He writes, “Also, towards the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark says,” followed by a quotation of verse 19. Around the same time, Tatian included the Long Ending in his harmony of the Gospels, the Diatessaron. However, during the second century, Ammonius developed a system of cross-referencing parallel passages in the Gospels (similar to the “center-column references” in many of our Bibles) which did not include the Long Ending. In the early 300s, Eusebius was aware of the existence of the Long Ending, but stated that “in nearly all the copies of the Gospel according to Mark” the end was at 16:8. He remarks that the “accurate” copies of Mark end at verse 8.

Much of the discussion regarding the Long Ending revolves around four primary factors: vocabulary, style, content, and theology. While many scholars base much of their argument for or against the Long Ending on vocabulary, for the sake of time, I will not devote much attention to the issues of vocabulary here. Scholars on both sides of the issue have produced thorough and detailed analyses of word usage which each side claims furthers their own position. I have found merit in both, and found neither of them to be conclusive beyond the shadow of a doubt. I agree with Maurice Robinson who said that in the study of these vocabulary issues, “far less is gained … than often is claimed.”

When we come to style issues, we notice even more unusual features in the Long Ending. As one moves from verse 8 to verse 9, the flow of the narrative seems a bit disjointed. Verse 9 does not seem to follow the preceding material which provides the context. In verse 8, the subject is the women, while verse 9 assumes (but does not state) Jesus as the subject. Verse 9 introduces Mary Magdalene almost as a new character to the story, even though she has already been mentioned three times before in the immediate context (15:40, 47; 16:1). The other women who are with her at the tomb quickly disappear from the narrative altogether after verse 8, never being mentioned again.

More technically, it has been pointed out in our extensive study of Mark his frequent use of the Greek word euthys, typically translated in our English Bibles as “immediately.” It occurs some forty-four times in Mark 1:1 to 16:8. However, the word is noticeably absent in the Long Ending (the last usage of it is in Mark 15:1). Also, very frequently throughout Mark, the writer will begin sentences with the Greek conjunction kai, usually translated “and” in English. It has been estimated that 376 of 583 (64.5%) sentences in Mark begin with kai. In the first eight verses of Mark 16, eight sentences begin with kai. Yet when we come to the Long Ending, kai begins a sentence only six or seven times in twelve verses. These indicate a change in style from that of the rest of Mark.

Additionally, Mark typically tells stories using a particular verb tense known as the “historical present” tense. Most English versions mark these with a prefixed asterisk or star to indicate that they are present tense in the Greek even though they are translated in the past in English. Mark uses this verb tense some 150 times throughout his Gospel, including three times in 16:1-8. However, there are no historical present verbs in the Long Ending! This is a sudden change in the writer’s storytelling habits which indicates the strong possibility that what we have in the Long Ending is the work of a different writer.

Somewhat related to the style issue is the issue of content. Based on verse 7, we expect to soon read about a reunion of Jesus with the disciples in Galilee. However, all of the action of verses 9-20 takes place in and around Jerusalem. We never find a meeting in Galilee here in these verses. What we do find in the Long Ending appears to be a patchwork of information gleaned from the other Gospels and Acts. So similar are some of these statements with other passages in the New Testament that many have concluded that the Long Ending was written by someone other than Mark. Being unsatisfied with the way Mark ended at verse 8, some scribe may have pieced together details from other writings at a later date and attached them to the ending of Mark.

Finally, in our consideration of the Long Ending we must consider the theological concerns that are raised in it. First, in verse 19, Jesus is referred to as “the Lord Jesus.” While this is a suitable title for Him, nowhere else in Mark has this been used. Typically, Mark only refers to Him by name, “Jesus.” Even the use of the simple phrase, “the Lord” in verse 20 is unusual for Mark. Elsewhere this title is found only in Old Testament quotations (1:3; 11:9; 12:11; 12:29-30, 36) or by Jesus to refer to God the Father (5:19; 13:20).

Other questions of theology arise when one examines verses 16-18. First, it appears that Mark 16:16 indicates that baptism is a necessary requirement for salvation. “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved.” If this is the intended teaching of Mark’s Gospel, then it flies in the face of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, a doctrine that saturates the entire New Testament. But this is not without a possible explanation. An examination of the rest of the New Testament will indicate that baptism, although not a necessary prerequisite for salvation, is the most common public profession of faith in the early church. The Great Commission commands the baptizing of new converts, and the preaching of Peter on the day of Pentecost concluded with a call to baptism as a demonstration of repentance and faith in Jesus (Acts 2:38). It is fair to say that baptism is almost always assumed to be the first step of faith and obedience by converts to Christ in the New Testament. It may be that the close connection between baptism and salvation in Mark 16:16 is not intended to convey the idea of a works gospel, but to clarify that the biblical demonstration of one’s public profession of faith in Christ (which saves them) is by baptism (as a testimony to that salvation). After all, in the phrase immediately following in verse 16, condemnation is reserved, not for those who have believed and not been baptized, but for those who have not believed: “but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.”

More difficult to work around are the concerns related to the sign gifts in verses 17 and 18.
Here is the only place in all four Gospels that the use of tongues is mentioned. No other Gospel writer makes mention of the sign gift of tongues, though the promise of the Spirit’s coming is found in other Gospels. The emphasis in these other Gospels rightly falls on the Giver rather than the gifts. Interestingly, the Long Ending makes mention of the gifts, but is silent concerning the Giver, the person of the Holy Spirit. If Jesus had promised the disciples the supernatural ability to speak in new languages in advance, then there is no record of them reflecting on such promise when the events of Pentecost unfolded. In fact, when Peter offers explanation of the Pentecostal phenomena to the bystanders, he says, “This is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel,” (Acts 2:16) not “This is what was spoken of by the Lord Jesus.” However, as we look through the book of Acts, we find that God did supernaturally enable the disciples of Jesus to speak with other tongues when the Gospel was being communicated across cultural lines, so there is no real difficulty with the presence of tongues here, except that their mention here is unique among the Gospels.

When we come to the issues of handling snakes and drinking poison we have more difficulty finding a reasonable explanation for the inclusion of the Long Ending, or at least these phrases in it. If the Long Ending is a later addition pieced together from separate accounts in the Gospels and Acts, then the writer may have had the incident of Paul’s snakebite (Acts 28:1-6) in mind when he included the phrase, “they will pick up serpents.” However, it would be improper to conclude that what happened to Paul there would be normative in the experience of all Christians everywhere.

When we come to the even more problematic statement about drinking deadly poison, we find no other mention of such in the entire New Testament. Some have suggested that it may be a restatement of the idea in Luke 10 of treading upon serpents and scorpions, both of which may be poisonous. However, Mark 16:18 clearly refers to drinking poison. The closest parallel we find to this in ancient Christian writings comes from outside of the Bible. Thus, when we examine all of the sign gifts in vv17-18, we have no problem believing that certain Christians have experienced the miraculous power of God in all of these ways at various times in history. What we question is whether or not the Lord Jesus would promise these as regular and normative experiences for all of His followers, especially when this Gospel and the rest of the New Testament seem to speak less favorably about the use of signs.

When it comes to the Long Ending, there are possible explanations for every questionable element that arises. However, there is a cumulative weight to the factors which argues strongly against the Long Ending. The combination of all of the unusual words, stylistic features, and theological difficulties in such a short amount of space strongly suggests that the Long Ending was a later addition written by another writer. This becomes even more likely given the suspicions which arise very early in the manuscript evidence.

We must ask a very basic question: “Which is more likely, that a scribe would intentionally add the Long Ending, or that a scribe would intentionally omit the Long Ending?” Bratcher and Nida conclude that it is “inconceivable that any copyist would have omitted the twelve final verses of the Gospel if they were original. That they should have been added, however, from other sources by copyists who felt that the Gospel, ending at 16:8, was incomplete, is highly reasonable, and is, in fact, the most satisfactory solution of the problem presented by the external evidence.”

This leaves us with the Short Ending (verse 8) as the most likely original and authentic ending to Mark’s Gospel. However, this view is not without its own difficulties. For the sake of time, I will only state the two most prominent difficulties. First is that if Mark ended at verse 8, he ended in a very unusual way compared to other ancient Greek writings. In the Greek text of Mark, verse 8 ends with a conjunction, the Greek word gar, commonly translated as “because” in English. Thorough searches across the vast supply of ancient Greek writings have demonstrated that only a handful of cases with such endings can be found. However, even this small amount of cases demonstrates that it is not entirely impossible that Mark could have intended to end this way. This seems to be an inconclusive point in the debate, for we cannot deal with what Mark should have done, but rather with what it appears that he did.

The second concern with the Short Ending is that it leaves the reader with a somewhat difficult final scene. Rather than narrating an encounter with the risen Lord, or with the women going and doing exactly as the angel has commanded them, it ends with the women fleeing in fear and silence. This is somewhat of an unusual cliff-hanger ending, but it is no more problematic than the books of Jonah or Acts, for instance. Neither of these books end the way we might anticipate or desire, and both leave many questions unanswered. Fear and silence, though not what we expect to find here, is in fact exactly what we find throughout Mark at nearly every presentation of the divine power of Jesus. We must remember that throughout the Bible, fear has two senses. First is that sense with which we are all familiar, a fear that is akin to horror or dread. But there is another sense in which fear is used to express a sense of awe and reverence. It is this kind of fear that is commonly experienced by people in the wake of Jesus’ miracles.

Fear of this kind causes a person to make a decision. Upon beholding the power of God in the person of Christ, fear can paralyze or it can lead into faith. The choice is with the one who fears. It would appear that Mark has concluded his book with the intention of leading us to make this choice for ourselves. We are left hanging, but we are not hanging in ignorance. We have been told what has happened and what will follow (16:6-7). Now we must make a response of faith and obedience – to believe the report and to go and tell others.

Mark’s ending at verse 8 indicates that the story is not finished but is continuing on in your life and mine as we read these words. By stating that the women told no one, he challenges us to assume the responsibility of telling the good news to everyone. Though our initial response to Jesus may be similar to theirs – fear and silence – like them, we must overcome and arrive at faith and obedience. They did not stay afraid and silent forever. They did go and tell. The rest of the New Testament and the history of the Christian church is evidence that they did. Had the secret died with them, we would not be here today. But if the Lord should tarry His return, what will He find 2,000 years from now? Will future generations be gathered together to worship the risen Christ? That depends in large part on us. Will the news of Christ’s resurrection and the message of the Gospel be a secret that dies with us, or will we hold fast to these truths by faith and boldly proclaim the news to all people?

The day may never come when more evidence is found to confirm which of the possible endings of Mark is original beyond all shadows of doubt. Until that time, God has contented Himself to leave us with the evidence we have, entrusting us to draw fitting conclusions from that evidence. By weighing the evidence, we are able to come to the conclusion that Mark most likely intended to end his Gospel at 16:8. But we must be careful and humble here. We do not want to quickly remove verses 9 through 20 from our Bibles, because a strong case exists for their inclusion, though perhaps not as strong as the case for their omission. Since most of what is found in the Long Ending is taught elsewhere in Scripture, we need not fear that a Christian brother or sister will fall into heresy or sin by following the teachings of the Long Ending. However, given their uncertain status, we must handle these verses carefully and beware of basing any belief and practice on these verses alone. For instance we should not infer from Mark 16:16 that baptism is a necessary requirement for salvation, or from verses 17-18 that we should go out grabbing snakes by the tail or drinking poison. Based on other clear and undisputed teachings of Scripture, we know that these would be faulty conclusions. We are promised throughout the entire Bible that salvation is a gift of divine grace received by faith alone and not by works, and that works (even baptism) are testimonies to one’s receiving of such grace, not means of receiving it (Ephesians 2:8-10, for example). We have warnings elsewhere about putting the Lord to the test (Matthew 4:5-7, for instance), and we are promised that living for Christ in this fallen world may result in suffering (2 Timothy 3:12, for instance). We are not promised that we will always escape the serpents or poison with our earthly lives in tact, but we are promised that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life and he who believes in Him will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Him will never die (John 11:25-26). Therefore, we may be content to leave the Long Ending where it is, surrounded by its brackets, marked by its asterisks, clarified by its footnotes, in our English Bibles. We can view it is an early Christian attempt to round off the ending of Mark while maintaining that Mark 16:8 is the only sure conclusion we have to the Gospel. And that ending is sufficient to prompt us all to decide what to do with the risen Jesus. It appears that Mark’s aim was to present the audience with enough evidence to rightly choose to believe in Him and to walk in faith and obedience as we tell this Good News of the risen Lord to the nations. What will you do with the risen Jesus? Will you leave the empty tomb in the fear and silence of unbelief, or will you be awestruck by the Son of God, speechless at His majestic power, and faithfully go and tell the world the message of this Good News that He is risen?

No comments: