Five Principles for Understanding the End of Mark’s Gospel

[Some of the earliest mss conclude with 16:8]

As we conclude our sermon series in the Gospel of Mark, we come to a unique set of verses accompanied by a note:  “[Some of the earliest mss conclude with 16:8]”.  In the Christian Standard Bible, Mark 16:9-20 is included in brackets, indicating that these verses are in some way different than those found in the rest of God’s Word.  The ESV carries a similar warning.  Some translations remove these verses altogether.  Mark 16:9-20 is referred to as the longer ending of Mark.  The note that precedes this set of verses indicates that some of the earliest, most thorough biblical manuscripts do not include verses 9-20.  When these verses started to appear in later manuscripts, they were flagged by scribes as likely inauthentic, but included with a notation warning readers of the concern.  Scribes in this age followed a key principle:  “when in doubt, don’t leave it out!”[1] Because of their fierce commitment to preserving God’s Word in its entirety, scribes and copyists throughout the ages have included these verses, but rarely ever without the note questioning their authenticity.  This note instructs students of the Bible to treat these verses with caution, understanding that while they are interesting and informative, they may not be the inspired word of God.

Today, it is widely held that the longer ending was not written by Mark, meaning it is not divinely inspired.  Scholars generally agree that Mark’s Gospel actually ends at Mark 16:8. Mark Strauss writes,

Virtually all scholars agree that the longer ending that appears in most manuscripts (16:9-20) is not original.  Its style and content are non-Markan, and it does not appear in the most important early manuscripts.  It represents a compendium of resurrection appearances from other gospels and was likely composed by a second-century copyist disturbed by the abrupt ending of Mark.[2] 

Elsewhere he writes,

            Convincing arguments tell against the longer ending (16:9-20) as the original ending to Mark.  The two oldest Greek manuscripts omit it, along with many versions, and early church fathers show no knowledge of its existence.  The longer ending’s vocabulary and style differ strikingly from that found in the rest of Mark and are immediately recognizable… It serves as a tip-off that a later scribe, drawing on other traditions, has added this section.[3]

At Christ Community, we hold high a view of the Bible that is committed to pursuing truth, regardless of where it leads.  We believe that God’s Word can be tested, tried, and will still be found wholly reliable. While it might seem like the implications of an issue like this detract from the reliability of the Bible, we are actually convinced of the opposite.

With that in mind, here are a few principles to help you navigate this issue.

We are encouraged by the rigorous textual criticism of those who uphold the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.

It is important to realize that while this may be your first time exploring this issue, it is not a new problem.  There is a vast body of scholarly work almost as old as the text itself that is committed to determining its originality and reliability. Moreover, this is the case with all Scripture. 

Paul Carter writes, “The text of the Bible is the most rigorously attested text in the history of human literature. The truth is that when we compare all the thousands of scraps and fragments of the New Testament from all over the Mediterranean, from every stage of the reproduction timeline, there are remarkably few significant textual variants.”[4] In fact, “only two major passages raise this kind of issue.  One is Mark 16:9-20 and the other is John 7:53-8:11.”[5] 

While many would be tempted to hide this issue or deny it altogether, Christian scholars throughout history have sought to understand it properly while being completely transparent about their concerns.  We know that opponents of Christianity challenge the veracity of God’s Word, but we can be encouraged when we realize some of the greatest minds the world has ever known have come face to face with these textual variants and emerged completely committed to the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible.

We wrestle humbly and prayerfully with the difficulties presented by the Mark 16:9-20.

If at this point, you’ve found yourself starting to question the trustworthiness of the Bible, fear not.  You’re in good company.  The reality is that this is one of the more complex bibliological questions one can ask.  However, let us encourage you not to stay there.  The sovereign, wise God who has allowed this question to be raised is the same God who created us with the mental faculties to engage it.  We want to encourage you to humbly and prayerfully think through this issue for yourself.  In order to do that, here are a list of helpful resources on the topic:

We acknowledge the text as interesting and informative, but not divinely inspired.

One author has pointed out that while the longer ending is not divinely inspired, it can still give us a historical picture of the theological debate within the early church.[6]  One of the primary controversies in the early church was their preoccupation with signs and wonders.  This is well documented in Paul’s interactions with the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14.)  Throughout the New Testament, both Paul and Jesus prioritize the miracle of the gospel’s resurrection power above the signs and wonders displayed in the early church to point people to the gospel.  In 16:17-18, the set of commands to speak in tongues, handle snakes, and drink poison places an uncharacteristic emphasis on the spectacle of the miraculous, which is contrary to Mark’s presentation of Jesus throughout the rest of the gospel.  It is far more likely that these verses were added later by a scribe who was less concerned with the cautious treatment of the miraculous.[7]  Thus, these verses should not compel believers to prove their faith by handling snakes or drinking poison.  Rather, they should illuminate some of the unique controversies in the early church.

We preach what we’re certain of, making the best use of our time together as the body of Christ.

In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul encourages Timothy as a young pastor to “preach the word.”  It is the great honor and duty of every church to gather weekly and preach the inspired word of God.  We hold fast to the conviction that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17.) In relation to Mark 16:9-20, we are convinced that this questionable text is included in modern translations not as the inspired Word of God, but as an inauthentic addition by a later scribe, which renders it uninspired. 

You might be asking, “Will you preach Mark 16:9-20 on a Sunday morning?” In short, no.  Instead, we will conclude our series at Mark 16:8 in agreement with the vast body of Christian scholars who advocate for 16:8 as the legitimate end of Mark’s Gospel.  Here’s why: When we gather, we do so to preach the inspired word of God.   While it may be helpful to understand the longer ending of Mark as a supplement to God’s Word, it is neither practical nor wise to spend our limited time together as a body on a text that is likely uninspired.

We rejoice in the empty tomb.

Mark’s gospel ends swiftly in Mark 16:1-8 with one central point: the tomb in which the suffering Savior was buried is no longer occupied!  “Don’t be alarmed,” he told them.  “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6.)  Mark’s focus from the beginning of his gospel has been to bring the reader to this very moment, where they can rest in the finished work of the cross and rejoice that they too, by faith, can share in Jesus’ resurrection.  This is our hope, joy, and treasure.  This is the good news:  Mark’s final word in his gospel.

One final note: we’re openhanded with this issue. There are scholars that we know and respect who feel differently about the longer ending. Please know that it doesn’t matter to us where you fall on the issue, as long as you fall there thoughtfully. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

[1] Black, David Alan. Perspectives on the Ending of Mark, 27.

[2] Strauss, Mark. Mark 16:1-8, 1.

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] Carter, Paul. What Do You Do With The End Of Mark’s Gospel,

[5] Akin, Danny. Preacher’s Toolkit: Should I Preach the Longer Ending of Mark?,

[6] Carter, Paul. What Do You Do With The End Of Mark’s Gospel,

[7] Ibid.