Mark 16:9-20 And New Testament Canonicity – David W. Hester

Editor’s Note: Dr. Hester is a lecturer at Faulkner University and co-director of the university’s annual Bible Lectureship. This article is a summation of brother Hester’s dissertation, “Does Mark 16:9-20 Belong In The New Testament?”, published later this year.

Mark 16:9-20 is a passage that has been debated over for many decades. In the larger religious world, most theologians and commentators reject it as being from the hand of Mark, while still including it within the Gospel. This is based in part on the passage’s absence from two of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament—Vaticanus and Sinaiticus—as well as testimony from a fourth century Christian, Eusebius, who wrote that the passage was missing from some manuscripts. The passage is also missing from various manuscripts from all four textual “families” of the Greek New Testament. Several ancient versions of the New Testament, dating to the third century, also do not include the passage.

Additionally, internal evidence from the passage itself seems to indicate that the passage was written by a different hand than that of John Mark. Various Greek words are used only in 16:9-20. Some grammatical and verb structures in the passage are not employed elsewhere in Mark. Yet, the passage itself surfaced early—at least in the second century. Many scholars accept 16: 9-20 as “canonical,” but not from John Mark; yet, as the late Paul Harvey said, we need to see “the rest of the story.”

Mark 16:9-20 also has ancient attestation. One of the three oldest manuscripts—Alexandrinus—contains the passage. It is present in all four textual “families” of the Greek New Testament. Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, two second century Christians, quoted from the passage and attributed it to Mark. A second century document, “The Epistle of the Apostles,” quotes directly from the passage.

Tatian, who wrote a mid-second century harmony of the Gospels called the “Diatesseron,” quoted from Mark 16:9-20. Several third century witnesses also either quote directly or allude to the passage. Mark 16:9-20 is present in 99% of the surviving copies of the Greek New Testament. Numbers of manuscripts do not prove that a passage belongs; yet, Mark 16:9-20 at the very least has ancient witnesses testifying to its authenticity.

On December 30, 1965, the Society of Biblical Literature held its annual meeting at Vanderbilt University. Kenneth W. Clark delivered the Presidential Address. While not arguing for the acceptance of Mark 16:9–20 as genuine, Clark said: “On the other hand, the restoration of the traditional ending of Mark is a wholesome challenge to our habitual assumption that the original Mark is preserved no further than 16:8…Witnesses both for and against the restoration as genuine are early and impressive, and we should consider the question still open and perhaps ‘insoluble at present.’” (Clark, 9-10) Over the next 47 years, much work would be done in the scholarly world revisiting the passage.

Bruce Metzger did much work during those decades in clarifying external evidence that had been cited against the passage. In 1964, Metzger’s position concerning the passage was not significantly different from the near-universal scholarly view. It was during this time—while he was on leave from Princeton Theological Seminary—that he began preparation on what would become A Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament.

In the midst of his work on the project, he encountered “every so often…some question—whether great or small,” which had to be resolved. As it happened, 16:9–20 was one of those problems. Metzger’s comments concerning some of the research done up to that point of time in the Ethiopic manuscripts are revealing: “Previously published statements by generally careful and reliable scholars were inadequate, confused, and contradictory. The same manuscripts were cited as containing or as not containing these verses, with or without a shorter ending standing between verses 8 and 9” (Metzger, 167).

Commenting on the Greek text of the passage in 1971, Metzger stated concerning NT Greek Manuscript 2386: “Although the last page of Mark closes with έφοβοΰντο γάρ, the next leaf of the manuscript is missing, and following 16.8 is the sign indicating the close of an ecclesiastical lection, a clear implication that the manuscript originally continued with additional material from Mark” (Metzger, 122f1). Metzger had thus affected the evidence that supported omission, taking away one piece that had up until his time been cited frequently.

In 1972, Metzger announced a discovery he made concerning the aforementioned Ethiopic manuscripts: “The present writer, having examined the ending of Mark in sixty-five Ethiopic manuscripts, discovered that none, contrary to the statements made by previous investigators, close the Gospel at xvi.8, but that most (forty-seven manuscripts) present the so-called shorter ending directly after vs.8, followed immediately by the longer ending (verses 9–20)” (Metzger, “The Ending”). This also affected the evidence for omission in that it clarified one of the sources often cited against the validity of the passage. While Metzger still did not accept it as being from Mark, he accepted the passage as being “canonical.”

When all the external evidence is considered, several things are clear. First, there was an issue with the Greek text at the ending of Mark, possibly as early as the second century. This is borne out by the number of references to manuscripts ending at verse 8, damage to several other manuscripts at the end of Mark, the two oldest manuscripts not containing 16:9–20, and the patristic witnesses who call attention to copies of Mark ending at verse 8.

Second, Mark 16:9–20 was in circulation; this is seen by its acceptance of some patristic witnesses as part of Mark and written by Mark, and accepted by the early church in the second century. Third, the evidence both for and against inclusion of the passage is represented by all Greek text-types. Thus, external evidence by itself cannot definitively solve the problem of whether or not to include Mark 16:9–20—though the external evidence for inclusion is stronger than has been presented by some scholars in the past.

Concerning the internal evidence, one must first consider whether Mark could have ended at verse 8. No ancient book ends with γάρ (“for”); and, no paragraph in the Gospel of Mark ends with γάρ. Since the arguments in favor of such an ending have a distinctly twentieth―twenty-first century flavor, one is compelled to reject them. How would first century readers of the Gospel have reacted to an account of the life of Jesus—written by a close companion of Peter—without an account of the resurrection from the tomb? Such an approach to the book virtually ignores not only the evidence from the text, but also the first century setting of the Gospel. There must have been more to the text of Mark 16. Additionally, Mark 14:26 points to a post-resurrection meeting of Jesus and the apostles at Galilee. Without Mark 16:9–20, such a meeting is not included.

What of the words and phrases used in the passage that are not employed in the rest of the Gospel? Given that NT authors had the intellect and ability to write in different styles, it is not difficult to consider 16:9–20 utilizing different words and phrases—especially if the passage was not the intended finished product, but a preliminary draft. Instead of a copyist in the early second century constructing Mark 16:9–20, an alternative theory is feasible for the similarities between Mark 16:9–20 and the other accounts of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances.

The author’s familiarity with the same events which the other authors independently recorded could account for the parallels. Also, there are similarities between Mark 16:9–20 and the rest of the Gospel. If one allows an author the ability to write in different ways (as is the case with John—in his Gospel and in Revelation), or in summary fashion, then it is feasible that Mark wrote 16:9–20.

Since Mark was a companion of Peter, and his Gospel parallels Peter’s sermons in the book of Acts, it is reasonable to assume that Mark took notes of Peter’s own words of his eyewitness accounts—all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Mark would then use those notes to construct his finished Gospel. Mark 16:9–20, seen in this light, is thus a summary of what Peter preached and taught concerning the last days of Jesus on the earth.

A point that must be stressed is the reception of changes to a text accepted as apostolic. Most scholars agree that Mark 16:9–20 was very early in origin, and that the abrupt ending was also early. If it was known that the Gospel—ending at verse 8—was in circulation prior to Mark’s death, then how could the second century church have allowed an ending to be added by an anonymous author (or authors) which was not clearly apostolic (as many scholars claim), and how could it have gained such wide acceptance in subsequent years?

Those who claim that the ending is independent of Mark and not apostolic in origin have the burden of answering those questions. It is inconceivable that such an important event as the alteration of a biblical text—much less a Gospel—would have been kept secret in the early church (especially in light of biblical admonitions not to alter the Scriptures in any way). If, as some claim, the passage was crafted by an anonymous author who was not connected with the apostles, then how does one reconcile the acceptance of 16:9–20 with the subsequent rejection of pseudonymous second and third century documents which had no connection to the apostles?

This is further complicated by the fact that second and third century writers cited 16:9–20, and attributed it to Mark. If it was known that this ending had been supplied by another hand (or hands) separate from Mark, such would have been significant. Some maintain that the passage is an early attempt to harmonize the Gospels. Yet there is no evidence in the Greek manuscripts elsewhere of any type of harmonization of the Gospels in one document. It seems reasonable to assume that 16:9–20 was at the very least connected with Mark—if not written by Mark himself.

Mark 16:9–20 was part of the notes Mark had written, intending to finish the Gospel at a later point. If an associate of his placed the passage at the end of the Gospel following Mark’s death, this would explain the apostolic connection—it was widely known that Mark was a constant companion of Peter. The notes Mark had taken, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, accurately summarized the conclusion of the sermons Mark had heard Peter preach concerning Jesus Christ. He had already circulated the Gospel which ended at verse 8.

For some unknown reason, Mark was prevented from utilizing his notes to complete it. Mark’s associates published the Gospel ending at 16:8 after his death or imprisonment. His companions subsequently placed 16:9–20 at the end of Mark, thus producing a second edition. The two ancient textual traditions are a result of two editions. The first was circulated by Mark’s associates around the time of his death or imprisonment, while the second edition was circulated after his passing with Mark’s appended notes.

The time interval between the two editions was very short. This accounts for the two equally attested external traditions as well as the stylistic differences and similarities with Mark 1:1–16:8. Second to fourth century attestation of Mark 16:9–20 testifies to its acceptance by the early church. Thus, modern day readers of the Gospel of Mark should use the verses as part of Scripture.

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