Answering Difficult Bible Questions

Mark 16:9-20: Does it belong in our Bibles? Also explain verses 17-18?

According to history, there have been people who have questioned the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. But the questions about this passage have really arisen with many of the newer Bible versions. If you will open your Bibles to this passage you will note that there will be some sort of indication in your Bibles about this passage. What is interesting is that there is a wide variety of explanations and denoting that takes place in each of the different versions. Let us take them from most conservative to the most extreme.

The NKJV has an asterisk at the end of the verse 20, leading to a marginal note, which reads “Verses 9-20 are bracketed in NU as not original. They are lacking in Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, although nearly all other manuscripts of Mark contain them.” The HCSB puts brackets on the text and in the margin says, “other manuscripts omit bracketed text.” These are the most honest about the dispute. The ESV puts double brackets on it and puts a statement in the text itself, “some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.” The NIV also has a statement in the text, “the earliest and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.”

These last two major versions really cause some confusion. The NRSV has two endings written into the text. First the shorter ending is written in double brackets. Then the longer ending is written in double brackets. In the margin is this explanation, “Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. One authority concludes the book with the shorter ending; others include the shorter ending and then continue with verses 9-20. In most authorities verse 9-20 follow immediately after verse 8, though in some of these authorities the passage is marked as being doubtful.” Thus the NRSV gives the fullest explanation, but certainly leads to confusion by having various endings. The most offensive, in my opinion, is the treatment given by the NASU. It puts the text in brackets like most of the others, but the margin reading is very troubling. It says, “Later manuscripts add verses 9-20.” Also at the end of the verses they have the short ending in brackets and italics. So we immediately begin to wonder what is going on with this passage. Is this an addition in all the other manuscripts? Can the passage be trusted? Should we read it?

External evidences

Let us begin with the external evidences first. Many of the church fathers support the inclusion of this passage. The writings of Justin, Tatian (A.D. 170), and Irenaeus (A.D. 180) supports the passage’s inclusion. Justin Martyr (A.D. 150) refers to Mark 16:20, thus supporting inclusion of the passage. Early translations of this passage into the Latin, Syriac, and Coptic translations (A.D. 150-300) include Mark 16:9-20 in their translations. Even further, almost every manuscript that we have today has Mark 16:9-20 as the text of the gospel of Mark.

When we begin to examine further, we find out that there are two early manuscripts that do not have this section of Mark, the Sinaticus and Vaticanus. Another manuscript, manuscript K, has both short and long endings and three 5th century Armenian manuscripts do not have the passage either. In light of the thousands of manuscripts that we have, only a handful of manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9-20.

But what scholars tell us is that the two oldest manuscripts that we have, the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, do not have the passage. But they do not want to tell you some other facts. The scribe who copied the Vaticanus manuscript let a blank column at the end of Mark large enough to include these verses before he started writing Luke. The scribe seems to have been waiting for another manuscripts to be able to finish his copying. So he leaves enough space so he can go back and finish the work. Even further, why should we place our emphasis on two manuscripts that do not have the passage against the other thousands of manuscripts which contain the passage? Why should we trust these two manuscripts when we find that the Sinaiticus has 2877 omissions in the gospels alone in comparison to the majority texts. The same for the Vaticanus which has 3455 omissions in the gospels alone. We should not place such an emphasis on such mutilated manuscripts.

Even further, these two manuscripts come from Egypt, where the gnostic influence that John was combating in his epistles was the strongest. During the first through fourth centuries many gnostics were mutilating the manuscripts to promote their teachings. This explains many of the omissions that are found in these manuscripts, including the Mark omission. But scholars also believe that there are many internal problems with this text such that we ought to discard verses 9-20. So in the rest of our time I would like for us to look at Mark 16 and see if there are any contradictions or problems found in this text.

Internal Examination of Text

Jesus’ rebuke (vs. 14)

The first point of question is found in verse 14. Here we read that Jesus “rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen.” This is a difference from the other gospels. We do not read of Jesus rebuking his disciples after his resurrection. So here is a claimed discrepancy from the other gospels. But I do think we need to make a point. The other gospels do teach us that the disciples did doubt the resurrection and his appearance to others. In Matthew 28:17 we read that some of the disciples doubted. In Luke 24:11 the disciples did not believe the words of the women who had seen the risen Jesus. Jesus had previously rebuked the disciples for their lack of belief, and it would not be a stretch of imagination to believe Jesus rebuked them for their unbelief of His resurrection.

Signs of disciples (vs. 17-18)

In these verses we read of many signs that would accompany the believers. We read that they would be able to cast out demons, speak with new tongues, take up serpents, and drink deadly drinks. This is another instance where scholars tell us that the internal evidences of this passage show us we must reject this passage because it is not found in other gospels. Yet most of these things can be found in the scriptures. Do we see the disciples casting out demons? Yes, in Mark 6:7-13 we read of the disciples casting out many demons. Do we see the disciples speaking in new tongues? Absolutely, in Acts 2:4, 11 we see them speaking in tongues, each in their own language. Do we see the disciples taking up serpents? Yes, in Luke 10:19 we see the seventy were given authority to trample on serpents and scorpions. Remember what happened in Acts 28:5 to Paul. Paul is gathering sticks and as he puts them in the fire, a viper fastens on to his hand, but he shook off the creature and suffered no harm. Do we see the disciples laying hands on the sick and healing them? Of course, we even see them raising people from the dead in Acts 9.

The only one we do not see occurring in the scriptures is drinking anything deadly. This has caused many commentators to say, “taking up venomous serpents and drinking deadly poison seem to introduce us into the twilight of apocryphal story.” These are the reasons why textual scholars have discounted Mark 16:9-20: Internally, we do not see other accounts of Jesus rebuking his disciples after the resurrection and we do not see apostles intentionally picking us serpents and drinking poison. Further, the two oldest manuscripts do not contain these passages. While these things may be a challenge and are undoubtedly different from the other gospels, I believe we can make reasonable explanation of the supposed “difficulties” we read in Mark.

Understanding the “Uniqueness” of Mark

The uniqueness of John’s ending

Turn to John 21 and let us notice the uniqueness of the account of John:

  • Verse 4: Here we read that the disciples did not even know that it was Jesus, though the resurrection had already happened, as well as the fact that Jesus has shown himself to the disciples repeatedly (21:1).
  • Verse 7: Here we read that when Peter found out it was Jesus, he put his garment on and jumped into the water and swam to shore. We do not have this account anywhere else.
  • Verse 15: Here we read Jesus asking Peter if he loved Him more than these. And this happens three times as Jesus responds “feed my sheep.” This story occurs in none of the other gospels.
  • Verse 18: Here Jesus makes a prophecy against Peter that when he is older, he is going to be taken away where he does not want to go. This was a statement about the kind of death that Peter would endure. We have no account of this prophecy in any other gospel.
  • Verse 25: Here we read a statement that is not found in any other gospels which sounds like an exaggeration.

The point is this: there are many unique and what may be considered fantastic stories that occur in this passage. How come scholars do not reject John 21? Because it is found in all the manuscripts. Even though there are unique events and perplexing stories, no one rejects this passage. Why should we be compelled to reject the ending of Mark? It is no less unique and no less amazing than the gospel of John. We cannot start throwing out text simply because we do not read it in another place. If that were the case, we would lose all of John 21. The internal evidences are the same.

The only difference is that the Mark account has two early manuscripts that are missing the passage, while John is found in all the manuscripts. Two manuscripts that have thousands of other omissions. Two manuscripts found where the gnostics were mutilating the scriptures. One of the manuscripts even has a place where the rest of Mark should have gone. Why should we reject Mark 16:9-20? There is no good reason nor enough evidence to cast doubt on the passage.

Mark 16:1-8 alone is incomplete

Let us read the first eight verses of Mark 16. By a simple reading of the text it is obvious that the story would be incomplete if it stopped there. Mark is in the middle of discussing the resurrection story of Jesus and we are to believe that verse 8 is the end of the account. There must be more to the story. The account cannot stop them leaving the tomb trembling. There has been no appearance or instructions of Jesus yet. So to suggest that the text should stop at verse 8 does damage to the flow of the gospel.

Understanding Mark 16:17-18

Since Mark 16:9-20 is the inspired word of God, as proved by the thousands of manuscripts, many want to know how can we understand verses 15-18? Verse 17 is where many have difficulty. “And these signs will follow those who believe.” Who are the those who believe? The most natural understanding is to go back to the reference in verse 16, those who believe and are baptized will be saved.

Some conservative commentators, like the one for Truth Commentaries, suggest that since we do not have these powers, the “those who believe” refers back to the eleven apostles in verse 14. Therefore, these were the signs and powers that only the apostles would have. While that seems to get us out of our difficulty, it does not make sense of the passage. Verse 17 is a general description. Those who believe could not refer to the eleven. We know they believed. They were the only believers that Jesus had. The very phrase suggests that there were some who would believe and some who would not believe. To reference back to verse 14 is unnatural and contrived. Further, were the apostles the only ones who exhibited these signs? Absolutely not. Acts 6:8 tells us that “Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” In Acts 8 we read of Philip performing miracles and casting out unclean spirits. In Acts 9, Ananias heals Saul of the blindness placed upon him by Jesus. The church in Corinth was able to perform these signs (1 Corinthians 12-14). We could make point of others, but these examples are enough for us to see that other disciples besides the apostles had the ability to perform miracles and signs.

What we are left with is the most natural reading. Verse 16 is those who believe and are baptized will be saved, and here are the signs that will follow those who believe and are baptized. These gifts and signs would be needed in the first century to validate the word that was be spoken and to know the will of God since the first century Christians were lacking New Testament scriptures. I believe we can understand this passage to be saying that those who believed and were baptized in the first century would receive some gift of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12 we see some were able to perform miracles, some could prophesy, some could speak in tongues, and there were many other gifts that were performed. Nothing in Mark 16:17-18 suggests that these signs would go on endlessly. When combined with other passages about the ending of spiritual gifts when the completion of the word of God came, we must understand that these signs were given to those who obeyed the gospel, but did not transfer on within the church in perpetuity. In my estimation, this does no violence to the scriptures and explains how the believers could receive these gifts, without contorting the subject to refer to the apostles unnaturally.

Conclusion:

It should be no surprise to us that these scholars would want to eliminate these verses because salvation is so clearly depicted as requiring belief and baptism. Of course it would make the religious world happy to eliminate these verses since none in the religious world want to follow what it says. Everyone tries to teach that baptism is unnecessary. Yet Mark clearly taught that salvation came through belief and baptism. It is impossible to have belief only from what Mark said. And so all of this text is thrown into question. But the evidence remains that the text belongs and that we can make sense and understand this text naturally so as to fit with the other gospels as well as the acts of the apostles.

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