WARNING: Technical (and possibly dull) text-critical information follows:
Picture the scene: you are asked to deliver a speech of around 4000 words. It takes you around 20 minutes to deliver the speech, while around 30 people in attendance take notes by hand.
Some of those attending afterwards get together and compare their notes, and seek to piece together what you said. Others do not. Soon those hand-written copies are copied by others (also by hand). When those hand-written copies wear out, another hand-written copy is made. Because your speech was so brilliant, more and more copies are made, and end up spreading across countries and continents.
Now fast-forward to the year 4014. After 2000 years of copying and re-copying, how close in wording to your original speech do you think the surviving copies will be?
That’s a crude way of illustrating how well-preserved the Word of God is. We would be pleasantly surprised if, after 2000 years, the only real differences in the surviving copies were different spellings, or some word order in the sentence, or the occasional added or omitted word. But that’s the amazing situation with our copies of the Greek New Testament. After 2000 years, we have well over 5000 manuscripts, and their agreement, given the amount of time since the original writing and the amount of transmission, is phenomenal.
Nevertheless, no two Greek manuscripts are exactly alike. That fact at first disturbs some Christians. There are minor differences between manuscripts, most of which are completely inconsequential. Nevertheless, they are different. Therefore we are left with three possible conclusions:
1) They are all corrupt and we do not have the preservation of the original New Testament writings;
2) One of the thousands of manuscripts is the perfect copy of the New Testament;
3) God has preserved the original writings of the New Testament through many manuscripts, not in one.
If we take the first option, we deny that God has preserved His Word, which is, of course, contrary to the Word itself. If we take the second option, we are faced with the unsolvable mystery of how we find out which one out of 5000+ manuscripts is the totally pure one. (Furthermore, very few preserve the entire New Testament, some are a few books, or sections of books.) The third option, we believe, is the correct one. God, in His wisdom, chose to preserve His Word through thousands of slightly differing manuscripts. In fact, we could see how this would protect His Word from being hijacked by one church or school, intentionally changed, and then given back to the world as the Word of God. As we would say in our Internet era, God allowed the Greek New Testament to go ‘viral’, preventing any one group from altering the Word of God. So the next time someone tells you that the Bible has been changed, ask him how that devious Bible-tamperer managed to effect his changes upon thousands of manuscripts spread across three continents.
Criticism, Not Criticising
When Bible scholars do their work of comparing Greek manuscripts, they do something called textual criticism. This is not “criticising the text” in some hostile fashion. It is doing the work of criticism, trying to analyse what is best, and what is true. Textual critics gather the enormous amount of manuscript evidence, and compare. They note the differences, and try to account for them. They eventually make their judgements as to what they believe the correct reading of the original Greek text was. And once again, on way over 97% of the text, there is agreement. The disagreements are usually spelling, inflection, synonyms, word order. Here and there, an additional phrase or word exists, or is missing, as the case may be. Text critics do their work to try to understand whether these words or phrases are an addition (in the ones that have it) or an omission (in the texts that lack it).
Text critics use two kinds of evidence to make these decisions: external evidence, and internal evidence.
External evidence is all the evidence to do with how this section in rendered in various texts. They look at how the verse is rendered in ancient papyri. They look at how it is written in very ancient Greek texts written on vellum (leather) in capital letters (called majuscules). They look at other texts written in small letters (called minuscules). They look at some very early books (called codexes). They see how the early church fathers quoted the text in question in their own writings. They look at very ancient church manuals, called lectionaries, in which large portions of Scripture were reproduced for public reading. And different manuscripts are given different weight. Some are very early (2nd to 4th century), but in the minority. Some are later (6th to 12th century) but make up the majority of manuscripts. They do not simply count manuscripts and let majority rule, nor do they give the oldest manuscript the loudest voice. Text critics spot similarities between texts and group them into ‘families’. They spot developments and unintentional mistakes by scribes. Here and there, they see an intentional corruption, and can throw it out.
Internal evidence is all the evidence within the Greek text itself. Text critics consider the flow and logic of the context. They look at the vocabulary and syntax and see if it fits. They undertake a process (which can be highly speculative) of trying to guess what a scribe would do. Feeling that scribes preferred to harmonise passages, and smooth over what was rough, text critics often feel that the more difficult, less harmonious reading is likely the original one, and the smoothed, harmonious one is likely the added one. They try to imagine if it is more likely that a scribe would omit a certain phrase, or add it.
The result of their work is the Greek texts that our English Bible are translated from. And once again, the agreement of manuscripts, given their age, geographical spread, and the time since their writing is enormous. No book in the world has as much manuscript evidence as the Greek New Testament.
One Difficult Place
There are one or two difficult places. One of those places are the last verses of Mark: verses 9-20. You will often find those verses bracketed, or asterisked, with a note that these verses are not found in certain manuscripts.
That’s true; they aren’t. Verses 9-20 aren’t found in a few manuscripts, but two of them happen to be fourth-century manuscripts that text critics values highly (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus). A debate has raged about whether these verses are original to Mark or not.
Here are really the three options touted today:
- We have lost the original ending of Mark.
- Mark’s Gospel was intended to end at verse 8.
- The last twelve verses of Mark were written by Mark and are original.
I cannot hold to the first option without denying that the Scriptures are complete, and sufficient to equip us. I do not think God preserved His Word miraculously, but I do believe He preserved it providentially.
The second option is held by probably the majority of scholars today. Their reasons are: 1) Some of the most ancient texts omit the longer ending 2) Mark wanted his Gospel to end on the note of the awe and fear of the women, giving everyone the cliff-hanger ending that required the Christian community to fill in the obvious consequent Resurrection appearances. 3) It seems more logical that scribes would construct the ending of verses 9-20 to fill out Mark’s abrupt ending, rather than omit it. 4) Some of the language does not seem Markan.
For all that, I am not convinced of the second option. I am not a King James Onlyist, nor do I hold to perfect preservation or to an ongoing work of inspiration in the transmission of God’s Word. I don’t think you need to hold those positions to believe the last 12 verses of Mark are original and genuine. Here are five reasons to believe it is so.
- Virtually all manuscripts contain the reading. Yes, we do not simply count manuscripts to make a textual decision. But what we ought to do is remember that every one of those manuscripts making up the vast majority has a transmissional history. That is, each manuscript came from an earlier one, and probably from a different location. When many sources spread over time and place attest to the same reading, the simpler explanation is that these were sourced from earlier, common manuscript ancestors that shared the same reading. That kind of consensus cannot be explained by mere scribal pressure to conform. The external evidence is very strong that the reading is original. When you consider that Justin Martyr and Irenaeus both quote from the longer ending, we have to assume that if the longer ending were a scribal addition, it had somehow passed into common use and recognised authority by the year 150 A.D – a rather unlikely situation. The only real questioning of the verses occurs primarily in fourth-century manuscripts, which actually raises a question over that century and situation, than over the weight of manuscript evidence over the centuries. It is easier to explain an odd-duck omission, than an empire-wide inclusion.
- One can imagine very plausible scenarios for its omission by some. For example, certain spurious sects were claiming Pentecostal powers. Mark’s unique references to speaking in tongues, drinking poison and handling snakes could have been troublesome for the ‘orthodox’, who wished to remove ammunition from those who would use it for their hysteria.
Furthermore, far from ‘smoothing’ over apparent contradictions, the longer ending adds more difficulty to harmonising the post-Resurrection appearances – not what we would expect from a scribe with enough time to write a ‘perfect’ harmony of those appearances. Once this added difficulty was seen, some over-pious scribe could have removed it.
One can also imagine a less-sinister event, where the last twelve verses were lost from one of the very earliest copies of Mark (a torn edge, a missing leaflet), and the copies from that copy retained that loss. In fact, some of the manuscripts that end at verse 8 leave several blank columns, suggesting they knew there was a longer ending, but they did not have it, or were not sure of it.
Regardless of what scenario we come up with, the burden of proof really lies with those who would weight some fourth century manuscripts over against the overwhelming majority. What caused those scribes to omit these verses is no doubt a fascinating story, but their omission does not obligate me to regard these verses as spurious. I want to know why the speculated scenarios of what a scribe would or would not do when copying is given more weight than what 99% of the church has actually read and confessed for centuries.
- The supposed non-Markan language of the last verses of Mark is demonstrably false. There are other undisputed sections of Mark, unique to him, which have just as high (or higher) a percentage of unique words and syntax (around 9%). If a scribe added it, he was a very good Mark-imitator, not a bad one.
- Maurice Robinson has shown how many of the themes in Mark only find a fitting conclusion in the last verses of Mark. In particular Mark 1:32-39 has many parallels and allusions to 16:9-20, 3:14-15 sounds like it is fulfilled in 16:14-17, the apostolic commission in 6:7-13 parallels exactly the Great Commission of 16:14-18. The Son of God theme at the very beginning of Mark corresponds with the ascension and enthronement of the Son of God at the end of the longer ending.
- Finally, Mark has the habit of showing us how prophecies were literally fulfilled. To think that he wrote again and again of the Greatest Miracle – the Resurrection – and then left the actual historical fulfillment of that prophecy untold, is straining on my credulity.
For my money, I am standing with the church’s view from the second century to the Enlightenment: Mark 16:9-20 was written by Mark, and belongs in our Bibles.
Robinson, Maurice, “The Long Ending of Mark as Canonical Verity” in Perspectives on the Ending of Mark, ed. David Alan Black (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2008).
_______________, New Testament Textual Criticism: The Case for Byzantine Priority http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/v06/Robinson2001.html