Dr. Zachary J. Cole, BA, ThM, PhD
Lecturer in Biblical Studies
Union Theological College
Have you ever noticed that occasionally your Bible will contain a note saying something like this: “The earliest manuscripts do not have this verse”? You may never have seen these notes before, but most Bibles contain dozens of these annotations hidden in their margins and footnotes. A scary one shows up at the end of Mark’s Gospel. Near the close of the book, right after verse 8 of chapter 16, the NIV contains this note:
“The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9–20.”
I want to explain what this note means and tell you why it is not as scary as it might seem to be.
What does the note mean?
If you don’t understand the note that the NIV editors put after verse 8, don’t worry: you are not alone. (In fact, one gripe I have with most English versions is that footnotes like this one are rarely understandable to people that haven’t gone to seminary.)
So, what is the note trying to say? Put simply, it means that the two oldest and best copies of Mark’s Gospel (plus a few others) end the book immediately after verse 8. In other words, the very last line of Mark in our oldest copies is this: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (16:8). End of story. On to Luke’s Gospel.
Unfortunately, we no longer have the original copy of Mark’s Gospel. The physical document of Mark’s original writing has been lost to history, and no one knows exactly how. Since this original copy has been lost, there are some places where there is doubt as to what exactly Mark’s finished product looked like. These places of doubt are relatively few in number, but here at the end is one of the question marks.
While we don’t have the original copy of Mark’s Gospel, we do have lots and lots (and I mean lots) of hand-made copies that descend from that original document. There are perhaps thousands of these ancient copies of Mark’s Gospel.
And here’s what’s strange. There are thousands of ancient copies (or manuscripts) of Mark’s Gospel still in existence, and nearly all of them contain the familiar verses 9–20. It’s only the two earliest copies (and a couple of others) that end the book at verse 8 without also adding verses 9–20.
[Side note: these two manuscripts that I have called “earliest” and “best” copies were not discovered by scholars and studied until relatively recently in history. That’s why the King James Bible doesn’t bother to mention the problem about 16:9–20. The KJV was produced as a translation in 1611 AD, long before one of these two important manuscripts had been discovered, so the translators weren't as aware of the problem as scholars are today!]
Why is it a problem?
Another question that people often ask is this: if thousands of copies contain verses 9–20, and just two copies lack them, why even bother? Don’t a thousand copies beat two copies any day?
Many Christians think this way. To them, there is no way that two copies (give or take) can cause us to doubt a whole paragraph of Scripture. And, to be fair, this is a safe and respectable viewpoint. Let me clarify: if you believe that verses 9–20 are original to Mark’s Gospel, you are in good, reliable, Christian company. No problem.
That said, however, there are others (myself included) that think the issue is slightly more complicated. Consider this analogy. Let’s say that there are two people who accuse a certain man of being a criminal, and over one thousand people who say that he’s innocent. Isn’t it obvious that we should trust the thousand over the two? Why condemn a man when so many people think he’s innocent and just two say he’s guilty? But what if we discovered that those thousand people don’t actually live in the same city as the man, they’ve never met him personally, and none were present when the crime took place. In fact, they all heard of his innocence from other people who claim to have been present. In contrast, what if the two people who disagree with the thousand and say he’s guilty actually live on the same street as the man, and they personally saw the event with their own eyes? In this case, the raw numbers are less impressive. I would trust the two men who were closer to the event rather than the thousand who live in another city and were not around when it happened.
This is an imperfect analogy, but you can see what I mean. Only two copies of Mark seem to suggest that 16:9–20 were not originally written by Mark himself, but these are both early and reliable witnesses. And we might say that the copies that do contain 16:9–20, while large in number, are really secondary in importance because they stand farther away from the event itself.
That is why I, along with most New Testament scholars, are convinced that Mark did not write verses 9–20.
Then where did verses 9–20 come from?
This is a really good question. If 16:9–20 are not part of Mark’s original book, then where exactly did they come from and how did they get there? The short answer is this: we don’t know.
The longer answer is this: someone (and we don’t know who) must have written these verses and added them to the ending of Mark’s Gospel, probably sometime in the mid-second century AD.
I think this is a very likely suggestion because of how bizarre it seems to end a book with the sentence “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (16:8). What kind of ending is that?
If Mark really ended his Gospel at verse 8, then several things seem wrong. First, the women don’t actually report the resurrection like they are commanded to do. Rather, they “said nothing to anyone.” Second, Jesus never gives a “great commission” as he does in Matthew, Luke, and John. After the resurrection we expect some more “oomph” from Jesus. Third and strangest of all, Jesus never actually appears to anyone, we just hear about it secondhand from the angel (16:6). No wonder someone tried to tidy up this strange ending!
When you consider these strange qualities, one thing seems clear: it is highly unlikely that anyone would intentionally delete or remove 16:9–20. Why would anyone remove this portion of the book, only to create a bizarre and evidently unsatisfying ending to the Gospel? Since it is extremely unlikely that anyone would delete 16:9–20, the reverse scenario seems much more likely: Mark’s original ending appeared strange to some, who tried to “fix” it by adding some closure.
And when we consider this possibility, the content of 16:9–20 begins to make a lot of sense. Scholars have noticed that virtually all of the material we find in 16:9–20 can be found in other sources: namely, the endings of Matthew, Luke, John, and even the book of Acts. It appears that someone combined the information from these other books and composed a more “satisfying” ending to Mark’s Gospel.
This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that other attempts at ending Mark’s Gospel exist too. In fact, some other manuscripts (though only a few) contain what is known as the “shorter ending” of Mark, a different and more concise summary. You can find the text of this in the margins or footnotes in most Bibles. Why would these other “endings” exist if it already had a satisfying ending?
Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!
Let me close by describing why I think Mark decided to end his Gospel at 16:8.
There is an interesting pattern in Mark’s Gospel of people speaking when they are commanded not to do so. Remember after Jesus healed a deaf and mute man, “Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it” (Mark 7:36). Can you imagine directly disobeying Jesus like this? But it happens again and again. Jesus also cleansed a leper and then commanded him, “See that you don’t tell this to anyone...” But instead, “He went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news” (Mark 1:43–45).
This is a recurring theme in Mark. Jesus commands people to be quiet (probably to prevent crowds from forcibly making Him king before His appointed time), but they frequently disobey Him and spread the news widely. But now, at the ending of the book, when the greatest miracle has taken place, and Jesus has risen triumphantly from the grave exactly has He had promised to do, His followers are finally commanded to go forth and tell. This is the moment! But they can’t. They don’t. They’re afraid.
This seems to be a massive let-down. But what’s actually happening is that Mark is, in a sense, turning to you the reader and asking, “So what will you do? Will you go forth and tell? You’ve just read a whole book about Jesus and His ministry. Will you believe and spread the good news? Now is the time to decide.” So, rather than being a mistake, ending the book of Mark at 16:8 actually makes a lot of sense and pulls the reader into the story.
Ending the Gospel at 16:8 is not an awkward mishap, it’s a genius strategy to get the reader to make a decision!
Let’s recap. Scholars today question whether or not Mark originally wrote the text found in Mark 16:9–20. Smart, Bible-believing evangelicals stand on both sides of this debate. Some think Mark wrote it, others don’t. The reason why these verses are in doubt are (1) that they are missing from our earliest and best copies of Mark’s Gospel, (2) the content of 16:9–20 seems to be dependent on other books (Matthew, Luke, John), and (3) Mark seems to have a purpose for ending the book on a strange note.
Personally, I think that Mark 16:9–20 was added to Mark’s Gospel at an early stage by an unknown but well-meaning editor. I would not preach it, but I would respect someone who chooses to do so. However, let me reiterate that the best part: either way, even if 16:9–20 is not original, no doctrine is lost, nothing vital is in doubt, the resurrection is still true as true can be. That puts things in perspective. Whether or not 16:9–20 is original or not, there is no question that the resurrection occurred, that Jesus is alive, and that He reigns forever as Lord and King in awesome power and infinite authority. To Him be the glory!
Dr. Zachary J. Cole
Before joining the Union faculty in 2016, Zach taught in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. His primary area of research is New Testament studies, with a special interest in textual criticism, papyrology, and apocryphal gospels.
Ever since his undergraduate studies, he has been interested in the details of how we got the Bible. After graduating from Palm Beach Atlantic University with a BA in Biblical Studies (2009), he went on
to Dallas Theological Seminary for a ThM in New Testament (2012). He completed a PhD in New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, UK (2016), where he undertook research on the physical
and material culture of the early Christians and their books.
At Union, he contributes to the teaching of most New Testament modules and all levels of Greek.
As an assistant minister at Maze and Ballinderry Presbyterian churches, Zach is active in church life and is committed to equipping people to handle critical questions about the Bible. He is married to
Kayla, and they have two young daughters, Fiona and Ivy.