By: Steven Martins
It’s a debate that has raged in scholarly circles and even within local church communities. Does the Gospel of Mark end at chapter 16 verse 8, or verse 20? If it ends at verse 8, then should verses 9 to 20 be considered inspired by God? Before attempting to answer this question, it’s worth understanding the context of the Gospel of Mark.
As with every book in the Bible, whether classified under the Old or New Testament, we have a long list of manuscripts from different periods of the ancient past from which we can compare text with text to determine the original writings. If you were to be reading a NASB (New American Standard Bible) and come across to Mark 16:8, you will almost always find a footnote stating “Later manuscripts add verses 9 to 20.” Not every Bible version states this, but those that do are being honest to the scholarly work behind the translation and preservation of the Holy Scriptures. If you were to consult the earliest copies of manuscripts containing a complete collection of the books of the Bible, such as the Vaticanus Codex of AD 350 or the Sinaiticus Codex of AD 375, you will discover that Mark 16:9-20 has been altogether omitted. In some other later manuscripts, instead of Mark ending at verse 8, we find a different alternate ending stating:
“And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
Why have we then disputed Mark 16:9-20? Besides its absence in earlier manuscripts, it is also because its literary style is very different to the rest of the writings of Mark. Each person has a particular style of writing, and in their writings and expressions they exhibit certain linguistic signatures that can be attributed to them. For example, we can identify Pauline language in all of the Pauline epistles, but when we examine Mark 16:9-20, it stands as a misfit in Mark’s usual linguistic signature due to non-familiar word usage and expressions. Also consider that Mark 16:16 stands in conflict with the rest of Scripture concerning salvation, stating that if one is not baptized by water then they are not saved. It then attributes both faith and works towards the attainment of salvation, but this conflicts with the overall theme of the New Testament that salvation is by faith alone. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9, clarifying that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (NASB).
One might argue that because Mark 16:16 were the words of Christ, then surely it must be authoritative over the writings of Paul. But this “apparent” contradiction may be valid IF these were in fact the exact words of Christ and IF they were written by Mark. The manuscript evidence suggests otherwise however.
Is There Any Evidence?
Is that to say that manuscript copies do not include Mark 16:9-20? That would be an incorrect observation, as there are many later Greek manuscripts that do include these verses. The problem lies in tracking its preservation back to the formation of the early church (the generation of the apostles), in which it appears that a copyist or translator may have added the verses in later generations. But this begs the question: What other hypotheses have been proposed for this apparent variant?
The reason a copyist or translator may have added verses 9 to 20 may be because Mark 16:8 is too abrupt an ending for the Gospel account. It could have been that Mark always intended to end the Gospel at verse 8, highlighting the amazement of the apostles, and leaving readers with a cliff-hanger to build suspense (others may suggest other narratives rather than this). It could also have been that Mark did NOT intend to end his Gospel at 16:8, being interrupted due to death, execution or another traumatic event, and leaving another person to have added the remaining verses (although this later suggestion was proposed by common lay-people in conversation, it is nonetheless rather improbable).
Another hypothesis may be what is most common to find in manuscript preservation. Perhaps the ending to Mark was lost and therefore never recovered. At this point in time, there is no clear consensus as to what or why it happened in the way it did, but what can be said and rather conclusively is that with the absence of evidence we only have speculation and theoretical propositions at best. It still begs the question: Is the ending of Mark 16:9-20 still the inspired (God-breathed) word of God?
The Question of Inspiration
We are honest in our confession where there are existing variants in the Holy Scriptures, and as believers in Christ who hold to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, we do believe the divine word of God is without error, which is why we seek to reconcile “perceived” conflicts and resolve “apparent” contradictions. That is to say, we are not undermining the word of God, but we are being honest about the manuscript evidence because we do care about preserving the divine revelation of God. With that being said, given the evidence currently available to us, the passage of Mark 16:9-20 is not inspired by God and not written by Mark. That is where we side on the debate, but the conflict won’t be settled likely until we uncover more early manuscripts of Mark. That is the good news, as scholars have been reporting of a yet-to-be published first century fragment of the Gospel of Mark extracted from a Mummy mask. If successful in its extraction, examination and preservation, we could expect to see the findings and its content in the coming New Year. The findings of this discovery have already been rumoured to potentially appear in Brill’s A Bibliography of Greek New Testament Manuscripts, scheduled for a February 2015 release. However, time will tell as to whether we will find the published findings in the aforementioned Bibliography, and whether the fragments contain the final chapter of the Gospel of Mark. If we do happen to find that it contains the ending to Mark, and if it is affirmed to be a first-century fragment, then it could very well help settle the debate.
Until then, we should not forget the active involvement of the Spirit of God in the preservation of the biblical manuscripts, and that for some reason or another He willed that Mark 16:9-20 be found present in our modern-day Bibles. Whether that is to highlight the weakness and frailty of man while also building the case for the miraculous transmission of God’s inerrant revelation through man, or another reason altogether, we ought to take great caution in using these passages for the building of sound doctrine, while also not discrediting the Spirit’s reason for including them. If we do utilize these verses, they ought to be in their proper context, given the support of the rest of Scripture where more clearer teachings and truths are given, but not isolated and regarded as solely inspired, not until the internal & external evidence shows otherwise.
 See Black, D. A. Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: 4 Views. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academics, 2008).
 See Wasserman, T. Breaking News on the First-Century(?) Fragment of Mark. (2014, May 5). Retrieved from Evangelical Textual Criticism: http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.ca/2014/05/breaking-news-first-century-fragment-of.html