Jesus’ Final Words: Mark 16

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This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Jesus' First and Last Words

We don’t know for sure what Jesus’ final words were in the Gospel of Mark. The closing verses of the book, Mark 16:9-20, are in doubt as to their authenticity. The Bible Knowledge Commentary tells us,

The external evidence includes the following: (1) The two earliest (fourth century) uncial manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) omit the verses though their respective scribes left some blank space after verse 8, suggesting that they knew of a longer ending but did not have it in the manuscript they were copying. (2) Most all other manuscripts (fifth century on) as well as early versions support the inclusion of verses 9-20. (3) Several later manuscripts (seventh century on) and versions supply a “shorter ending” after verse 8 which is clearly not genuine but all these manuscripts (except one) continue on with verses 9-20. (4) Early patristic writers—such as Justin Martyr (Apology 1. 45, ca. A.D. 148), Tatian (Diatessaron, ca. A.D. 170), and Irenaeus who quoted verse 19 (Against Heresies 3. 10. 6)—support the inclusion of these verses. However, Eusebius (Questions to Marinus 1, ca. A.D. 325) and Jerome (Epistle 120. 3; ad Hedibiam, ca. A.D. 407) said verses 9-20 were missing from Greek manuscripts known to them. (5) An Armenian manuscript of the 10th century attributed verses 9-20 to “the presbyter Ariston,” probably Aristion, a contemporary of Papias (A.D. 60-130) who was purportedly a disciple of the Apostle John. (6) If Mark ended abruptly at verse 8, then it is easy to see why some early copyist(s) wanted to provide a “suitable” ending for the Gospel from other authoritative sources. However, if verses 9-20 were part of the original, it is difficult to see why the early copyists would have omitted it.

Skeptics often cite this passage as evidence of the Bible’s unreliability. I can still remember, however, my very first Bible given to me by my church in grade school, and its marginal note cautioning that this passage was in doubt. The same with the John 7:53-8:11, whose authenticity is even less likely than this passage’s.

Bible scholars and publishers are honest about textual issues. A good study Bible’s margins are peppered with possible variants. And not one of them affects a single point of history or doctrine.

This Marcan passage comes as close to an exception on that as any, where it says that those who follow Christ will “pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly poison it will not hurt them.” We know from Church history that snake-handling and poison-drinking never became an accepted practice of the church, which indicates that from the start, no one thought this was a normative instruction.

I am aware of three possibilities for explaining this passage. Either (1) the text is inauthentic in the first place; or (2) this is a figurative way of saying that God would be with his followers and protect them from various harms; or (3) since these were named as part of a list of “signs,” they were expected to happen only rarely, as is the case other signs recorded in the Bible and history.

Option 1 is certainly possible. Option 2 is unsatisfactory to me: there are too many exceptions. Option 3 makes sense. We do know of a case where Paul survived a snake bite (Acts 28:1-6), and had to explain to the witnesses that he was not a god.

I should also mention another potential controversy in Mark 16:16, where Jesus almost makes it sound like baptism is essential for salvation. Few Protestant churches believe this is to be the case. It seems to me that the latter portion of that verse is enough to show that Jesus didn’t intend that, since he did not say, “whoever does not believe or fails to be baptized is condemned.”

I hold to a generally Baptist view: baptism was and still is a public statement of belief; it is the way a new believer enters into the company of the faith. For that reason alone (there are others, I am not presenting a full theology of baptism here) it is vital to any believer’s walk with Christ. It is essential, even if not for salvation.

The rest of this disputed passage is echoed in Matthew and Luke, so that what it says is attested well enough elsewhere that there’s no need to wonder about it here.


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3 Responses to “ Jesus’ Final Words: Mark 16 ”

  1. Indeed, Baptism is an essential part in our entry to the Kingdom of God, well for us Catholics. Yet it doesn’t mean those who are not baptized will gain salvation even if they have live the path of righteousness.

  2. Of course, we know the the thief on the cross in Luke 23:32-43 wasn’t baptised and was saved.

  3. Tom,

    The notes about Mark 16:9-20 in the Bible Knowledge Commentary have a few problems.

    First, while the copyist of Codex B (Vaticanus) attempted to reserve some blank space (including an entire blank column) on the page, in case the eventual owner of the codex wanted to include Mk. 16:9-20, the copyist of Codex Sinaiticus did not do so; instead, he went out of his way to make sure that there was /not/ a blank column on the page on which Mark’s text ends at 16:8. There is blank space below Mark 16:8 in Codex Sinaiticus but that is normal leftover space; the copyists of Sinaiticus always begin a book at the top of a column, never (ever ever!) anywhere else.

    Second, the proportion of Greek manuscripts from the fifth century on is not merely “Most all other manuscripts.” While “most” can be anything over 50%, the percentage we are discussing is 100% of the manuscripts produced in the 400’s and later, once damaged manuscripts (such as 304 and 2386) are removed from the equation.

    Third, the statement, “Several later manuscripts (seventh century on) and versions supply a “shorter ending” after verse 8 which is clearly not genuine but all these manuscripts (except one) continue on with verses 9-20” is bound to cause confusion. Five Greek manuscripts of Mark contain the Shorter Ending followed by 16:9m and one Greek manuscript (274) has verses 9-20 in the text, with the Shorter Ending written in the lower margin. One Latin manuscript of Mark (Codex Bobbiensis, k) has only the Shorter Ending after (most of) verse 8, but this Latin manuscript does not come from the “seventh century on;” its production-date is c. 430.

    Fourth, it is not accurate to say that “Eusebius (Questions to Marinus 1, ca. A.D. 325) and Jerome (Epistle 120. 3; ad Hedibiam, ca. A.D. 407) said verses 9-20 were missing from Greek manuscripts known to them.” Eusebius makes it clear that he was aware of the existence of such manuscripts, but the part of Epistle 120 in which Jerome’s statement is found is embedded in Jerome’s own Latin translation/abridgement of Eusebius’ earlier composition; Jerome does not confirm it or deny it, but proceeds to advocate the same thing that Eusebius had advocated: keep Mark 16:9 in the text and add punctuation to resolve the perceived discrepancy between Mark 16:9 and Matthew 28:1.

    Fifth, the note in the Armenian manuscript (formerly known as Etchmiadzin 229, renamed as Matenadaran 2374) is very succinct; it is just the name, written in red above the line of text where Mark 16:9 begins. I think there’s a pretty good chance that this note began its existence in an earlier Armenian copy, alongside Mark 16:18, as nothing but the identification of the likely source of a tradition about a case of an apostle surviving poison-drinking, and that a later copyist, familiar with the disputed status of the whole passage, thought that it was intended to name the source of all 12 verses, and for that reason wrote it above verse 9.

    For more information about the evidence pertaining to Mark 16:9-20, I welcome you to read my research-book on the subject. Regarding the statement, “It is difficult to see why the early copyists would have omitted it” (if they had a reason, i.e., if the loss was not accidental), I submit that it is even more difficult to see why anyone would create verses 9-20 as an ending to the Gospel of Mark: verse 9 does not continue the scene in verse 8; instead, the narrative-stage is reset. And although 16:6-7 foreshadows a Galilean rendezvous, verses 9-20 seem to describe events in or near Jerusalem. I think there is an explanation for these internal features in the text — an explanation which may also explain why a meticulous copyist would remove verses 9-20 or at least separate them from the preceding text: Mark was forced by some emergency to stop writing at 16:8; his colleagues finished the text by attaching an already-existing summary of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances that Mark had written on an earlier occasion. In that finished form, the production-stage of the Gospel of Mark ended and copies began to be made and distributed for church-use. But someone who had already encountered verses 9-20 as a separate composition decided that it did not qualify as part of the Memoirs of Peter (which is what the Gospel of Mark was considered to be in the early church) and separated it from the rest of the text for that reason, which led to its complete removal at the hands of a professional copyist. The text in this shortened form had a considerable influence on the text used in Egypt, and there the Shorter Ending was composed, later, as a flourish to make the stoppage at 16:8 less abrupt.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.