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Of all the textual variants in the New Testament, Mark 16:9-20 is one of the most significant. In the English Standard Version, a heading appears between Mark 16:8 and 16:9: [SOME OF THE EARLIEST MANUSCRIPTS DO NOT INCLUDE 16:9-20.]

Books for Christian MenThe superscripted “a” (or “9” depending on the edition) guides the reader to a footnote: “Some manuscripts end the book with 16:8; others include verses 9-20 immediately after verse 8. At least one manuscript inserts additional material after verse 14; some manuscripts include after verse 8 the following: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to West, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. These manuscripts then continue with verses 9-20.”

That footnote is so vaguely worded that it is likely to convey a false impression. Readers could easily conclude that the evidence is evenly divided between (a) some manuscripts in which the text stops at 16:8, (b) other manuscripts which continue with verses 9-20, and (c) some manuscripts which have the Shorter Ending (“But they reported briefly to Peter; & etc.) followed by verses 9-20. And there’s “at least one manuscript” with an interpolation after verse 14. Let’s bring this data into focus.

There are over 1,600 Greek manuscripts of Mark 16, more or less. (Manuscripts continue to be discovered.) Setting aside manuscripts that have undergone extensive damage, the surviving manuscripts all contain at least part of verses 9-20, except three — one of which is medieval. Thus the ESV’s heading-note could say, more precisely: “Two of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.” Let’s explore the evidence to see what other adjustments are warranted.

THE TEXT IN EGYPT

The two early manuscripts in which Mark’s text ends at the end of 16:8 are representatives of a form of the text used in Egypt. Six manuscripts have the “Shorter Ending,” and they represent a later point in the history of the text in Egypt; none of them were made before the 500’s. In one medieval copy (minuscule 274), verse 8 is followed by verse 9 on the same line in the text, and the Shorter Ending is written at the foot of the page. The formatting and notes in three of the remaining five copies indicate that somewhere along the line, copyists in Egypt possessed master-copies with competing endings: one form of the text ended at the end of verse 8, one form of the text ended with the Shorter Ending, and one form of the text ended with verses 9-20 after verse 8. (The locale is narrowed down to Egypt by the presence of very similar formatting and notes in a Greek-Coptic (i.e., Egyptian) text, Lectionary 1602.) The one extant manuscript with extra material after verse 14 is also from Egypt — Codex W. The extra material does not replace verses 15-20; it is between verses 14 and 15. In the early 400’s, Jerome mentioned that this reading was in some Greek manuscripts.

Non-Greek evidence indicates that the Shorter Ending spread to a limited area, primarily in Egypt and Ethiopia. When it appears in Mark 16, the Shorter Ending is followed by verses 9-20, except in one Latin manuscript which has a highly unusual text throughout Mark 16:1-8. A line of descent can be traced from the Greek text(s) used in Egypt to the versions used there and in Ethiopia.

THE TEXT IN CAESAREA

Manuscripts with verses 9-20, and manuscripts in which the text ended at verse 8, were known to Eusebius of Caesarea when he wrote a composition called Ad Marinum in the early 300’s.

It is not surprising that the library at Caesarea would include manuscripts with an Egyptian form of the text, because around the year 230, the writer Origen had moved from Egypt to Caesarea, taking his library with him. However, Eusebius did not mention any manuscripts with the “Shorter Ending” — probably because the “Shorter Ending” did not yet exist.

THE TEXT EVERYWHERE ELSE

Almost everywhere else, Mark 16:8 was followed by 16:9-20. The versional support is enormous: Mark 16:9-20 is in the Vulgate (which Jerome stated that he prepared by consulting ancient Greek manuscripts), the Gothic version (produced by Wulfilas in the mid-300’s), the Syriac Peshitta version, the Curetonian Syriac manuscript, the Ethiopic version, and Latin manuscripts (except the one that ends with a badly written form of the “Shorter Ending”) which echo Latin versions made before the Vulgate. The Armenian version, initially made around 411 and then revised in the 430’s (probably via the use of a Greek manuscript which had been made at Caesarea), has many medieval copies in which the text ends at 16:8, and many more medieval copies in which the text includes verses 9-20; the earliest Armenian evidence comes from Eznik of Golb, who utilized Mark 16:17-18 around the year 440.

The Greek manuscript-evidence for verses 9-20 is also diverse and vast, as already mentioned, consisting of all extant manuscripts except three. The early non-Greek evidence may be summed up this way: before the 700’s, a total of three manuscripts of Mark 16 in all languages other than Greek do not have text from verses 9-20.

TWO HEAVYWEIGHT MANUSCRIPTS AND A MEDIEVAL FEATHERWEIGHT

Now you might be wondering, “Why do the ESV and other versions even bother mentioning the forms of the text which are supported by less than one-five-hundredth of the Greek manuscripts?” Part of the answer is that two of the three manuscripts in which the text of Mark 16 ends at verse 8 are the two oldest manuscripts of Mark 16. They are Codex Vaticanus (from c. 325) and Codex Sinaiticus (from c. 350), and they both are considered heavyweights (as opposed to much younger manuscripts from the late Middle Ages).

Write your vision. Make it plain.However, both of these fourth-century manuscripts contain unusual features that convey that their copyists were aware of the existence of verses 9-20. Codex Vaticanus has a blank column after the column of text in which Mark 16 ends at verse 8. The copyist did not leave such blank spaces between books anywhere else in the manuscript when he had a choice, so this strongly indicates that this blank space is “memorial space,” intended to convey the copyist’s awareness that something was missing in his master-copy.

In Sinaiticus, Mark 14:54-Luke 1:56 is written on replacement pages — that is, the text on these pages was not written by the same copyist who wrote the text on the surrounding pages; the pages made by the main copyist have been replaced. The letters in Luke 1:1-56 are written very close together, and the lettering in Mark 16:2-8 is stretched out. This indicates that the copyist who made the replacement-pages was determined not to leave a blank space — the reason being that he did not want such a blank space to be capable of being understood as “memorial space” for the absent verses.

What about that medieval manuscript? Minuscule 304 is a commentary-manuscript, containing commentary-material on Matthew and Mark. The commentary on Mark is written in individual sections, with portions of the text written between each section of the commentary. This commentary’s author borrowed material very frequently from a slightly earlier commentator named Theophylact — and Theophylact’s commentary includes comments on verses 9-20.

Thus a focused examination of these three manuscripts reveals that the number of Greek manuscripts of Mark produced by copyists who were unaware of the existence of verses 9-20 is probably zero.

SILENCED VOICES OF PATRISTIC EVIDENCE

A major clarification of footnotes about the ending of Mark involves patristic evidence. When writers in the early church (or, in some cases, non-Christian writers) quoted Scripture, their quotations resemble snapshots of portions of the writer’s manuscripts. In the case of Mark 16:9-20, the manuscript-evidence is not the earliest evidence.

Around the year 305, the pagan writer Hierocles cited Mark 16:18’s reference to poison-drinking in a jibe against Christians. Hierocles’ testimony is earlier than the earliest extant manuscripts of Mark 16 — but several other patristic utilizations of the passage are even earlier. Around the year 160, Justin Martyr made a strong allusion to Mark 16:20 in chapter 45 of First Apology. In the 170’s, Tatian included almost the passage in the Diatessaron, a non-repeating combination of the four Gospels. And around 180, Irenaeus quoted Mark 16: 19 in Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 10: “Towards the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark says, ‘So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God.”’

Thus three writers in the 100’s support the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20, over 150 years before the two manuscripts that compose 66% of the ESV’s heading’s “Some manuscripts.” Unfortunately this evidence is not mentioned in the footnotes of any major English translation.

MISINFORMATION IN COMMENTARIES

To find out about the patristic evidence pertaining to the ending of Mark, one has to consult commentaries or Study Bibles. However, many of these resources contain a high amount of misinformation on this subject. Commentators, like manuscripts, should be Weighed rather than merely counted. Here are some questions to ask which may indicate that you are reading unfair treatments of the evidence:

If an author gives you the impression that Clement of Alexandria and Origen “show no knowledge” of Mark 16:9-20, does he also point out that Clement fails to use 12 entire chapters of Mark? Does he point out that Origen shows no knowledge of many large segments of Mark? If an author claims that many manuscripts contain scribal notes about the passage, and that in other manuscripts, asterisks or obeli have been added to convey doubt about the passage, does he identify the manuscripts? If not, you may be confident that the author is merely recycling statements that he found in Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary. The actual number of non-annotated manuscripts in which Mark 16:9-20 is accompanied by such asterisks or obeli is Zero, and the notes in question, extant in fewer than 20 manuscripts, tend to defend the inclusion of the passage on the grounds that it is in the ancient copies, or in most copies, which is the opposite of the impression given by Metzger.

If an author tells you that 18 words in Mark 16:9-20 are not used elsewhere in Mark, does he mention that there are 20 words in Mark 15:40-16:4 that are not used elsewhere in Mark? If an author tells you that Eusebius and Jerome say that nearly all manuscripts of Mark lacked 16:9-20, does he also mention that Eusebius framed that claim as something that someone could say (that is, as something that might be true somewhere, not necessarily everywhere)? Does the author mention that Eusebius recommended the inclusion of Mark 16:9, and cited it himself in the same composition? And does the author inform you that Jerome’s statement is a case of Jerome recycling (today we would say plagiarizing) the earlier composition by Eusebius? If an author tells you that various compositions from ancient times end, like Mark 16:8, with the Greek word gar, does the author also inform you that those few compositions are speeches or essays, not narratives?

Combinations of vagueness, careless mistakes, and inequitable detail-selection about Mark 16:9-20 are sadly the norm in commentaries on Mark.

A SATISFACTORY FOOTNOTE ON MARK

Thankfully, the brevity of Bible-footnotes prevents them from conveying the massive amounts of misinformation observed in commentaries. On the other hand, their brevity has also tended to obscure how old, widespread, and abundant the support for Mark 16:9-20 is in manuscripts, versions, and patristic quotations. I recommend that Bible-readers should jot the following into the margins of their Bibles (setting aside as trivial accretions both the “Shorter Ending” and the extra material that appears in Codex W after 16:14):

“Out of about 1,600 existing manuscripts of Mark 16, over 99% contain at least part of verses 9-20. Two manuscripts from the 300’s, supported by some late versional evidence, end the text at the end of verse 8. Over 40 patristic writers, including three from the 100’s (most notably Irenaeus), convey that their manuscripts of Mark contained these 12 verses. The passage is also supported by the Vulgate, the Peshitta, and other early versions.”