Why We Will Not Be Preaching the Longer Ending of Mark’s Gospel

By Pastor Brady Wolcott

You may have noticed on Easter Sunday that Pastor Mark preached Mark 16 but only up to verse 8. And you probably also know that this past Sunday was our last Sunday in Mark’s gospel. So what about Mark 16:9-20? We have decided that we will not be preaching Mark 16:9-20, let me explain why.

The Textual Evidence

The big question is, “was Mark 16:9-20 part of Mark’s original gospel?” If you open your Bible to Mark 16:9 you will most likely see some sort of notation or brackets indicating that Mark 16:9-20 are “not found in the earliest manuscripts.” This is what is called a textual variant. What this means is that some New Testament manuscript families have variations from other manuscript families. The vast majority of these differences are very small (a missing word, or misspelled word) and have little to no effect on the meaning of a passage. However, there are two rather large textual variants in our New Testament. One of them is found in John 7:53-8:11 and the other is our text, Mark 16:9-20. Both of these passages fail to appear in the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament. Typically, scholars conclude that when manuscripts differ it is most likely the longer version that is in question. Why? Because a scribe would be more likely to add an explanation to a text than he would be to remove part of a text.

The Stylistic Evidence

Isn’t ending Mark’s gospel at 16:8 rather abrupt? Yes. But that has been Mark’s style all along hasn’t it? Mark wanted to end his gospel account almost with a question- what happened next? Will they believe in the resurrection? Will you? Also the vocabulary in Mark 16:9-20 is not Markan. There are 18 brand new words used in these verses that aren’t found anywhere else in this gospel.

The Historic Evidence

Most of the early church fathers seem to have no knowledge of the longer ending of Mark’s gospel. Clement and Origen do not speak of the longer ending nor do they quote from it. Eusebius, who lived around 260 AD, said that the shorter ending was more accurate.

The Doctrinal Evidence

Although it could be argued that a proper interpretation of Mark 16:9-20 leaves us with no doctrinal issues, it must be admitted that this text introduces some doctrines that don’t seem to be in harmony with the wider context of the New Testament. Things like snake handling, and poison drinking cannot be found in the rest of scripture as Apostolic signs.

The text also raises the question of baptismal regeneration. Unlike other texts that seem to teach baptismal regeneration, and yet a closer study reveals that salvation is by faith not works, this text by itself does not lead to this conclusion. In other words, within the text itself we have no explanation of this important doctrine of believer’s baptism or salvation by faith alone.

Can I Trust My Bible?

So is my Bible inerrant? Could it contain mistakes? All of this talk about Mark 16:9-20 should not leave us questioning the reliability of our Bibles. Actually it should do the opposite. Our understanding of Mark 16:9-20 should show us that we have the science, the tools, and the scholarship to determine when something has been added to scripture.

It is important to understand that we are not talking about an inspiration issue here, but rather a transmission issue. God guaranteed the inspiration of scripture, but not its transmission- that is the copying of the text over and over from language to language. Nevertheless, by his providence, God has worked to preserve the New Testament through the work of scribes and the science of textual criticism.

We must remember that we have over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. And, in addition, we have 25,000 manuscripts in other languages such as Latin. By comparison there are 643 copies of Homer’s Iliad. Detecting an error of transmission in Homer is quite difficult. But detecting an error of transmission in the New Testament is much easier, simply because of the sheer number of manuscripts that we have to compare. Because of the great number of manuscripts that exist, the New Testament is by far the most reliable ancient document that exists. Again, the textual variants that exist are almost all completely benign- that is, they do not affect any doctrine or pillar of our faith. The science of textual criticism, which examines and studies the textual variants, has left us knowing that the Bible we hold in our hands is reliable and should be trusted as God’s Word.

Please also keep in mind that this is not an issue over which to break fellowship. Many good and respected pastors and scholars do see Mark 16:9-20 as part of the Canon and would and do preach it. This is of course fine. They are not heretics. This is not an issue to argue about.

God’s word will endure, and whether or not we see Mark 16:9-20 as part of Mark’s gospel does not change any gospel truth. Nor does it add to or take away from the truth of the resurrection of Christ. This is the most important question- did the resurrection happen? Your salvation hinges on that question, not the inspiration of Mark 16:9-20.