In a few weeks, we will be completing a two year expository study through the Gospel of Mark. It has been a great encouragement to my soul to preach through this wonderful gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry. As I’ve prepared for the ending of this series, I’ve concluded that I will be ending our series at Mark 16:8 rather than the longer ending at Mark 16:20. In the world of textual criticism, the longer ending of Mark is one of the most disputed texts in all of the Bible. Below I’ve included the three main reasons why I will not be preaching the longer ending of Mark, but we must not lose confidence in the validity and authenticity of God’s inerrant Word.
The Textual Evidence
When you arrive at Mark 16:9, you will likely see some indication that the text is disputed. In the R.S.V., the text appears as fine print footnote. In the E.S.V., the text is bracketed off and a heading note reads, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.” This is what we call a textual variant, which consists of a different word or alteration of words depending on what manuscript families are being used. In the New Testament, we have approximately 400,000 Greek variants. In most cases, a variant consists of something as small as an alternate spelling (or mistake). However, Mark 16:9-20 is the second most lengthy disputed text in the whole New Testament. In most cases, a variant consists of merely a disputed word or variation of a specific word choice. In this section, it’s a large paragraph that’s under dispute.
The disputed longer ending of the Gospel of Mark does not appear in the two oldest manuscripts of the Bible — the codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (א). Many of the Latin, Syrian, Georgian, and Armenian manuscripts likewise end with Mark 16:8. Therefore, it’s not rocket science to observe that when the original manuscripts were being copied by scribes, additions to a later manuscript could easily be detected when comparing it with earlier manuscripts. If the oldest (earliest) manuscripts don’t have the longer ending, it points to a later addition by some scribe who might have considered the Mark 16:8 a strange way to end John Mark’s work.
In addition, the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) contains at least 14 different words that are not found anywhere else in the Gospel of Mark. Considering the fact that John Mark is ending his work on Jesus’ life and ministry, it would be rather odd to start inserting new vocabulary in the last 12 verses of his work. This points to the fact that someone added it to the Gospel of Mark and was not an original ending from John Mark himself.
The Historical Evidence
When we read authors, theologians, preachers, and scholars from church history, it’s apparent that many of them did not have any knowledge of the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark. For instance, Clement of Alexandria and Origen both show no evidence in their writing that they embraced a longer ending of Mark. Everything in their writing points to the ending of Mark at 16:8. Eusebius, the church historian born approximately AD 260, claims that the most accurate copies and “almost all copies” of Mark’s Gospel ended at Mark 16:8. Jerome likewise points out that Mark 16:9-20 was absent from the majority of the manuscripts available during his lifetime. The overwhelming historical evidence points to the fact that the earliest witnesses to the apostles viewed the ending of Mark to be 16:8.
When reading the Ante-Nicene Fathers (the ancient writings leading up to A.D. 325), it’s apparent that they viewed the ending of the Gospel of Mark to be 16:8 rather than 16:20. Consider the mountain of quotations (over 19,000 quotations from the gospels alone), it’s evidently clear that John Mark intended to end his work at 16:8 rather than the longer ending that was added at some later period. History is on the side of the 16:8 ending.
The Doctrinal Evidence
The longer ending of Mark contains some troubling doctrines that are not in harmony with the wider context of the New Testament. In particular, four strange doctrines emerge from Mark 16:9-20 that must be exposed as inconsistent with the New Testament apostolic age and miraculous gifts.
- Baptismal Regeneration
- Snake Handling
- Drinking of Poison
- Healing by Laying Hands on the Sick
Although many have explained Mark 16:16 in a way that does not teach baptismal regeneration, the best explanation does not emerge from the text itself. The best explanation arises from the overall context of the New Testament. In no other place in the New Testament do we see a verse that teaches the necessity of baptism in order to have true salvation. This is one more indicator that this isn’t an authentic text coming from John Mark’s pen.
In no other place in the New Testament do we see the disciples commanded to take up serpents in order to validate their faith in Christ. Even during the apostolic age when miraculous gifts were normative gifts to the church, such practices are not seen in any other place in the New Testament. Only in Acts 28:3 do we see something similar to this, but it’s involuntary or accidental as opposed to intentional snake handling. This serves as added support for the shorter ending of Mark.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we see the followers of Christ drinking deadly poison in order to validate the deity of Christ or the authenticity of the church. In our modern Charismatic movement we see tongues, professed healing, snake handling, and more—but no drinking of deadly poison. It seems to once again support the idea that Mark’s true ending is 16:8.
When we see the practice of healing in the New Testament it doesn’t seem to be a mere laying on of hands that is practiced. James mentions the need to call for the elders of the church to anoint someone with oil (James 5:13-15), but the idea of just touching someone and providing a healing goes against the grain of the New Testament pattern. This once again supports the shorter ending of Mark as opposed to the longer ending.
Is the Bible Inerrant?
What does all of this mean? Can we trust our Bible? Is the Bible inerrant or does it contain errors? In no way should the conclusion of a shorter ending of the Gospel of Mark diminish the validity or inerrancy of God’s Word. If anything, it should do exactly the opposite. The fact that we have a good enough process to examine and detect additions to the Word of God should raise our confidence in the trustworthiness of God’s sufficient and inerrant Word.
Most historians have little trouble accepting the accuracy of Homer’s Iliad and we have only 643 copies of his work today. When we compare that to the 5,839 New Testament manuscripts and approximately 25,000 manuscripts in Latin and other languages—the mountain of evidence rests on the side of the Bible. We can trust that our modern English copy is trustworthy. The point is clear, if an error occurred in the 643 copies of Homer’s work, it’s much more difficult to detect and much more likely to spread through the whole work especially if the error occurred early. That same problem could happen with the biblical manuscripts, but it’s easier to detect because of the vast number of partial and complete manuscripts of the New Testament.
Not only is the Bible inerrant, but it’s the validated and sufficient Word of God. It has stood the test of time including the scrutiny of textual examination and scholarship. You and I can trust that what God intended to communicate hundreds of years ago has been accurately passed along to us in our present day. The God of inspiration is the same of God of preservation.
F.F. Bruce concludes:
The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no-one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament than have many theologians. 
- F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949), 15.