What Happened to the Ending of Mark's Gospel?

I have heard critics of the Bible who say that whole portions of our current Bibles were not in the original text but were later written and inserted (usually to promote some agenda, say the critics). Two of these “voluminous” portions of Scripture that are in doubt by many critics are Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11. They are indeed missing in some ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. So, are they original? Are they Scripture? I will address the Gospel of John passage soon in another article. But for now, let’s take a look at the authenticity of the last twelve verses of Mark:

Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons.  She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.

After that, He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country. And they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either.

Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues;  they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.

First, there are 5,686 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament in existence today. Of all these copies containing Mark’s Gospel, only two omit Mark 16:9-20. And, of the two manuscripts that omit it, one has more than enough room on the page to include the twelve verses. It makes one think that the scribe knew of the existence of the verses, but for some reason chose not to copy them into the text.

The earliest complete manuscript containing 16:9-20 is Codex Alexandrinus from the 5th century. However, there are many other ancient sources that are earlier that contain them.

Other translations, including the oldest Syriac manuscripts, some Italic (old Latin), the Gothic version (c. 350), some Armenian texts and Coptic texts also contain this ending of the Gospel.

Early church theologians quoted Mark 16:9-20, with some of these quotations existing 50-100 years before the earliest Greek manuscripts. For example, Tatian in his book Diatessaron (c. A.D. 170) cited the last twelve verses. Also Tertullian (c. A.D. 190-200) referred to the disputed passage. Papias (c. A.D. 100) quoted verse 18, Justin Martyr (A.D. 151) quoted verse 20. Irenaeus (A.D. 180) commented on verse 19, Hippolytus (A.D. 190-227) cited verses 17-19, and the writing known as the Acta Pilati (2nd century) quoted verses 15-18.

The Apostolic Constitutions (3rd or 4th century) quoted verses 16-18, Ambrose in the 4th century quoted verse 15 (four times) and verses 16-18 (three times). Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate from the best Greek manuscripts he had at the time, included these passages in his translation.

The overwhelming external evidence from the earliest records of the Christians is that these verses were known throughout the Christian community from one end of the Roman Empire to the other, and beyond. And these verses were accepted early and quoted by a large majority of Christian leaders early on.

Some appeal to the “internal evidence” (the vocabulary and style) to doubt the authenticity of the passage. I have often believed that this is the weakest argument for throwing out the verses. An author cannot introduce new vocabulary when discussing new subject matter (like the resurrection)? One third of the material in verses 9-20 has words previously not used in Mark. But that means that two-thirds of the words in those verses are “Markan”! It seems to me that the majority of the story fits well with Mark’s writing. (Imagine if the story just abruptly ended with verse 3! Hardly a way for Mark to end the story of redemption!)

But why did the early Church fail, in some cases, to copy and preserve these words in two Greek manuscripts and other ancient translations? There is plenty of speculation, but in the end, we simply don’t know. Wars and persecutions certainly played a role in interrupting scribes. My theory is that the rather astounding claims of verses 16 and 17 may have caused some scribes to scratch their heads and just leave it out. Maybe. But since the scribes did not leave an explanation, there is no way for us to know for sure.

Mark 16:9-20 sees its fulfillment of this type of miraculous power in the story of the Acts of the Apostles. The problem is not with the text or its transmission. The problem is with our understanding of how these commands were fulfilled in the ministries of the Apostles in the Book of Acts.