Friday, August 27, 2010

Textual Criticism and the End of Mark's Gospel: But is it Bible?

I am an Evangelical Christian pastor. I believe that the Bible is God's Word. So do I believe that Mark 16:9-20 are God's Word even though I believe they were not part of Mark's Gospel originally? Here's my (slightly nuanced) answer:
  1. Believing that the Bible is God's Word does not imply a belief that there can be no additions or updating to what the original author of the text wrote. For example, I believe that it is more than likely that Moses did not write verses 5-12 of Deuteronomy 34, which describe his death and subsequent legacy. Likewise, there are dozens of places in the Old Testament in which place names have been updated or editorial explanation is supplied (e. g., the comment in 1 Sam. 9:9 that "the prophet of today used to be called a seer"). Thus, I don't believe that the authority of the Scriptures is at stake when I say that verses 9-20 may not have been included in Mark's original Gospel.
  2. Canonicity matters. In the history of the canonization of the Scriptures (the process by which the Church identified which books were Scripture and which were not), verses 9-20 were recognized as historic and authentic tradition directly tied to Jesus and the apostles. So even though it is likely that Mark didn't write these lines, they were nevertheless accepted as Scripture at a very early date. So though I'm not completely confident that verses 9-20 should be there, and would advise people against snake handling as part of worship, I'm happy to include them in the Scriptures as the Church has since Justin Martyr's day.

Textual Criticism and the End of Mark's Gospel: Where Does it End?

Based on the manuscript evidence, a lot of debate surrounds the ending of Mark. This is because two of the oldest, best, and most complete manuscripts we have of Mark, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus (commonly abbreviated in scholarly reference by the Hebrew letter aleph and the letter B, respectively), do not contain verses 9-20. Based on the guidelines I shared with you in the last post, the oldest, shortest, most difficult reading seems to be the one which ends the Gospel of Mark at verse 8. Yet verse 8 seems like an incredibly weird place for Mark's Gospel to end, because verse 8 ends with "They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." This isn't quite the triumphant story of Resurrection presented everywhere else in the New Testament. Adding to the puzzle are these facts: 1) verses 9-20 include a sudden shift of subject (from "women" to a presumed subject of "Jesus," whose name doesn't appear in the Greek); 2) about 1/3 of the words in verses 9-20 are words that either don't appear elsewhere in Mark or are used in a very different way than in the rest of his Gospel; 3)Mary Magdalene is introduced with a descriptive phrase in v. 9 as if she hasn't just been mentioned in v. 1; 4) based on what the angel has just told the women, Mark would have been expected to include a description of Jesus' Galilean resurrection appearances, but he does not; 5) Matthew and Luke follow Mark's account closely until verse 8, but then diverge sharply, suggesting that Mark did not have verses 9-20 originally present.

Four theories have been put forth to explain this, each of which has been defended by serious, Bible-believing scholars:

  1. Verses 9-20 are original to Mark, but are simply missing from Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. In support of this theory is the fact that Justin Martyr (d. 145) and Tatian (in his Diatesseron from about 170) as well as Iraneus and Hippolytus (Church Fathers from the 2nd and 3rd centuries) quote from these verses. In addition, almost all of the other manuscripts from the 5th century and later include verse 9-20. It is thus quite possible that these later manuscripts (from the 4th century) were copying from texts whose last page was missing.
  2. Mark finished his Gospel and it went beyond verse 8, but the original ending was lost before it was copied, so verses 9-20 were added later to finish it. There is almost no way of proving this, but it is a logical possibility.
  3. Mark didn't finish his Gospel for some reason (such as sudden death), and a later writer added verse 9-20. Again, this is possible, but there is no way of proving it.
  4. Mark purposely ended at verse 8, but a later editor added verses 9-20. This seems difficult, though possible, for the simple reason that verse 8 does seem like an odd place for the story to end.
After considering all the possibilities and wrestling with their implications, it seems to me that it's not quite possible to know the answer to this question with certainty. The textual evidence we have, while it is voluminous and reliable, (and far beyond the textual evidence for any other ancient document to boot!), it is not as exhaustive as we would like.

My conclusion based on the evidence we have is that either Mark ended his Gospel at verse 8 or that his original ending (which was more similar to Luke or Matthew) was lost at an early stage of transmission and that verses 9-20 were added by a later editor.

This conclusion may raise an additional question in some people's minds, (i.e., "But if verses 9-20 aren't original, are they Bible?") but that is a subject which merits its own post. If you've made it this far, you can surely hang on for one more!

Textual Criticism and the End of Mark's Gospel: An Introduction to Textual Criticism

One of my purposes in maintaining this humble (very humble) little blog is to provide an outlet for me to offer information to the members of my congregation which might not fit very well into a sermon. After eight months of study together on Sunday mornings, we are wrapping up Mark's Gospel this coming Sunday.

Mark ends with verses that are typically set off with a note indicating that "the earliest and best manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20." This kind of thing causes a lot of confusion among people who love and study the Scriptures, because they rightly wonder: "Is this part of the Bible or not?" Answering that question is a little more complicated than it might initially appear, but I will attempt to answer it as completely as I can in this and subsequent posts. In what remains of this one, I'd like to give a brief, highly condensed overview of the discipline of textual criticism.

First, let me say what textual criticism is and is not. It is not criticizing the text of the Bible, eliminating those portions with which we disagree or find unpalatable. It is instead the determined effort to derive the original text of an ancient document by comparing the various manuscripts of that document. Thus, textual criticism is a discipline which affirms that the original text matters, and since we are talking about the Scriptures, I have to say that I heartily agree. I want to be sure that I know exactly what God said in His Word, because I am shaping my life around it.

There are approximately 10,000 Greek manuscripts (i. e., hand copies) which reproduce all of or portions of the New Testament, dating from approximately 100 AD up to just past the invention of the printing press in 1440. In addition, there are thousands more quotes of the New Testament text in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, thousands more in the lectionaries (early worship guides), and the non-Greek translations of the text in languages like Syriac, Ethiopic, and Coptic. Text critics compare all these manuscripts to derive, as completely as they can, the content of the original. This is necessary because hand copying then, as now, is an imperfect process, leading to frequent variations in spelling, word order, and even subtractions from or additions to the text. All of these variations are called variants, and there are about 100,000 total in the New Testament. Of these variants, only 500 have any textual significance whatsoever, while the remainder are insignificant differences in spelling (e.g., Simon Peter vs. Simeon Peter) or word order (e.g., Jesus Christ vs. Christ Jesus). It is also worth noting for those interested also that none of these 500 variants have any impact on any major Christian doctrine, but that what has been called "Mark's Long Ending" is among them.

Text critics compare the manuscripts and then utilize the following rules to derive the original text:
  1. The oldest reading is preferred. Generally speaking, a variant which appears in a manuscript nearer in time to the original writing is more likely to be original than one that appears later because there is presumably less time for errors to arise. Thus, a 4th century manuscript is generally given more weight than a 7th century manuscript, but a 2nd century manuscript is preferable to either one.
  2. The shortest reading is preferred. The tendency of ancient texts is for them to become longer, as scribes added words to clarify difficult grammar, explain hard sayings, or sometimes even mistakenly incorporate a previous scribe's marginal notes. This is not an absolute rule, as sometimes the shorter text is shorter because the scribe accidentally left out part of the text due to the presence of repeated words (a phenomenon called homoeoteleuton).
  3. The most difficult reading is preferred. This criteria is closely related to #2 above, as scribes had a tendency to "smooth out" things which seemed contrary to piety and then-current ecclesiastical practice, harsh, or superfluous.
  4. The reading which explains the others is preferred. Comparing all the manuscripts, which one seems to be the best candidate for being the source from which the others were derived?
By applying these rules, it is possible to determine with a high degree of probability what the exact words of the original text were.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Hello, Internet chums. It's me again. There have been so many things I've been dying to comment on in the wider culture, but simply have not had time. But good things will come to those who wait, I promise (insert sound of people waiting with bated breath here).

Anyway, here's what's been going on:

Cub Scouts:
I've decided to become a Cub Scout leader because hey, I really needed something to do on the one night of the week which I have always kept open. Seriously, I am always looking for good ways to invest in my sons and Scouts seems to be an ideal way of doing this. And if I'm going to be involved in something, I'd just as soon lead it. So I've been spending a bit of time getting up to speed on how it all works (since the closest I ever came to being a Scout was a subscription to Boys Life magazine), and getting all the necessary certifications.

Karen and I have a modest garden each year: beans, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes. We've been canning salsa, pickles, and enchilada sauce until we are sick of it, often in the evenings after the kids go to bed.

School started for our oldest three again a week or so ago and we are all still adjusting. I'm going to be the driver for my eldest and her best friend a couple mornings a week, and school is starting an hour earlier for her than last year.

Weight Loss:
I'm in a weight loss contest with Karen and the other two members of the church office staff. I'm reliably in 2nd place these days, after leading for a couple weeks, though the gap between me and the leader gets a little smaller each week. $500 goes to the overall winner on December 30th, so I'm highly motivated. So far, I'm down 19.6 lbs in 8 weeks, and hitting the treadmill very hard as often as I can. A few months back, my dad gave me a book called Die Fat or Get Tough which does a great job of polarizing the choice. I'm trying to make the latter, obviously.

Deer Hunting Prep:
The season doesn't start till October 1st, but I've been busy hanging stands and getting ready just the same. I'm hoping this is the year I tag the Booner that's running on my hunting spot...

My GI doc continues to think that the medication I'm taking isn't doing much to actually bring my Crohn's disease into full remission, though it is keeping a lid on it a bit, and most preventing it from being a lot worse. So I've had a colonoscopy, a number of blood tests and, on Monday, an MR enterography to determine just exactly where we are in the progress of the disease. I won't know for a while yet, but the doc wants to keep me from the negative possibilities, as do I. I'm still not feeling my best due to after-effects of the test, but hopefully those will prove short-lived.

I've been organizing small groups, planning a baptism service, visiting the sick and bereaved, counseling the married but struggling and the single and lonely, trying to minister to the local skateboard kids who visit almost daily, overseeing building renovations, praying over numerous people, building friendships with those who are new to church, studying for two classes and one sermon each week, and trying to encourage the downhearted, spur the wandering to repentance, and lead the lost to the Savior.

Sara is doing well with life right now, though I can already see the beginnings of the awkward years starting to draw near. She has a great group of friends from good families and an easy time with school, but I pray daily for her transition to young womanhood. Ashley is struggling right now with the realization that some of the kids at school are sometimes mean, which is pretty tough for a kid who till recently floated through life without a care. John is still getting used to being a first grader, though he recently proclaimed that he thought it all entirely "too easy." He's well on his way to being sans front teeth and has gotten really into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and kung-fu. It's a rare day when I'm not tackled, karate chopped, or roundhouse kicked by one of the boys. Nate is full of life and feeling a bit lost in the shuffle I think. He's convinced that at 4 he should be old enough for school and he's really missing having his brother and sisters home to play with. I fill in as substitute playmate/kung-fu dummy/Tickle Monster when I come home at lunch every day. And Karen? Well, she's still the woman who makes my heart pound every day I get to spend with her.

I turn 37 today. It's funny to think about that, because I still feel 23, despite the receding hairline, the mid-life paunch, the grey in my beard and what's left of my hair, and the four kids that I can't possibly be old enough to have. I remember my dad turning 37 and thinking he was an old man (after all, I was 14 at the time!). Funny how times slips away, as the song goes. Yet I'm also deeply, overwhelmingly blessed.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What If...

By any measure, the cost of college education has grown far beyond the ability of the average American to sustain it. To cite just one example: I am now not quite 15 years past my college graduation. When I graduated from old TU, the total bill for tuition, room, board, and books was approximately $17,000 per year, for a 4-year total of $68K (a bit less in my case since I graduated early, and that was the senior year price, but still). The total cost for four years at 2010 prices? $144,000. As much as I love my alma mater, you can't convince me that the cost (nevermind the value) of a Taylor degree has increased by 111%. And old TU is far from alone in this: just check out what a school like Wheaton, or even Illinois State, costs compared to 15 years ago.

But what if it was possible to earn your degree in the following way:
  • Take classes from the best, most respected, most learned professors in each discipline.
  • Complete the traditional 4-year degree in 2-3 years, while taking classes at the times of day and/or on the days of the week that work for your schedule.
  • Engage in a learning community with not only the professor, but with other students.
  • Avoid and eliminate the political correctness, bureaucracy, barnacle encrusted processes, and institutional arrogance that infests most major (and many minor) universities and colleges.
  • Get the annual cost down to somewhere around $2,000
  • Never have to leave home.
This, according to some little-known tech revolutionary named Bill Gates, is the future, where most education is done online, and where the vast majority of "place-based" institutions find an ever-diminishing market for their product. Could happen. And I, for one, don't think that would be all bad. In addition to costing less, it would diminish the cultural power of institutional academia, and that would be a very good thing indeed. The various educrats of our world might have to (shudder!) get real jobs, the gifted teachers and profs would find their incomes vastly improved, and the students would get qualitatively better instruction at dramatically less cost. Remind me again: why we haven't done this already?

Helping you prepare for the zombie invasion

Not quite sure how I got started down this road, but I have a buddy who enjoys books and movies about vampires, zombies, and the like. The whole good triumphing over evil thing, I guess. Anyway, if the zombie hordes should ever happen to show up at your door, this is just the thing!

It's a standard AR type semi-automatic, adjustable stock .223 Remington rifle with a 30 round detachable magazine. It also features an attached harpoon quiver for the rail mounted harpoon gun below decks and is equipped with a night-vision scope for precise aiming even in the dark. If this can't handle your zombie problems, well then, nothing can!

Welcoming Ramadan

Today is the start of Ramadan, the Islamic month of prayer and fasting. It is also traditionally known within Islam as the month for visions. Over the last few years, in God's mercy, it has also been the time during which Muslims have had visions of Jesus and become Christians. I have more than one former Muslim friend who came to Christ in precisely this way, and have heard many reports out of the Muslim world that indicate that this is far from unusual. In fact, it may well be the normal means that God is using to draw Muslims to Himself in those places where more traditional forms of evangelism are virtually impossible.

I have two thoughts about this: First, these things are a magnificent testimony of God's grace to those who hate Him. The Islamic world is the most hardened stronghold of the Enemy that remains in the world. The world's animists, Buddhists, Hindus, and even secularists are all being relatively easily reached (by comparison), so God is using extraordinary means. Praise Him for that! My second thought is that the coming of Ramadan each year represents a great annual opportunity to pray with the Muslim world for the redemption of the Muslim world. Why not do something really extremist and pray for the men of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, & the Muslim Brotherhood to find the true God through faith in Jesus Christ? Anybody want to join me in prayer this month (until 9/11)?

Here's a good verse to pray, for those so inclined:
I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, 'Here am I, here am I.' ~ Isaiah 65:1

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why We Need Confession

Karen and I were talking about confession over lunch (I know, I know, it must be agonizingly boring to be married to a pastor!), and while we were talking, I learned some theology from her that is just too good not to share with you.

Consider the act of confession: It seems a little superfluous in some ways, doesn't it? I mean, all my sins have already been paid for at the Cross. Even my future sins are already covered by the blood of the Lamb. And God removes our iniquity from us as far as east is from west. So why confess? The reason is not for God's sake. He has already justified us through Christ. It is for our sakes, because in confession we have to admit that we are sinning. That admission is one of the most humbling acts in which a human can engage. It is also the only act by which we recognize our need to change. Without confession, there can thus be no change. If there is no change, then there will be no growth. God thus calls us to confess not because He is a rather grumpy fellow, who wants us to grovel before he condescends to grant us cleansing, but because He loves us. He loved us enough to send Jesus as the Lamb, and loves us still, too much to allow us to remain as we are in our sin. So confess, for God's sake and because your un-confessed sin erects a barrier in your relationship with Him. But also, confess for your own sakes, for who wants to remain the mess that they are?