Friday, August 27, 2010

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!

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