Have you ever been reading your Bible and come across a bracketed section that says, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include…”? Some of you have probably seen this but glossed over it, kept reading, and never gave it a second thought. But for some, this bracketed section causes you to wonder deeply why certain sections of our current Bible translations were not in the earliest manuscripts. It may even cause you to question the Bible’s inspiration and trustworthiness. In light of this, we will consider one of the more controversial of these passages while affirming that the Bible is indeed inspired and trustworthy.
It is important to recognize that these bracketed sections in our current Bible translations are relatively few. There is only a handful of passages that isn’t in some of the earliest manuscripts. Nevertheless, this presents a controversy because the early manuscripts should be the most accurate reflection of the original manuscripts. This could indicate that the bracketed sections were added later by a scribe. With that said, it should not be concluded that the Bible is untrustworthy or uninspired because we are uncertain of a few passages. For these passages to have remained in the Bible in the first place, they could not contradict any other part of Scripture. Thus, although there is uncertainty, these passages affirm what the Scriptures teach as a whole and remain consistent with the Scriptures in everything they say.
One of the largest and most controversial passages is Mark 16:9-20. To give some context, chapter 16 is the last chapter of Mark. The preceding verses end with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome going to the tomb of Jesus to find that it is empty. They speak with a young man who is in the tomb and then leave with trembling and astonishment (v. 1-8). The verses following include Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and two disciples, as well as the Great Commission.
Internal and external evidence suggests that verses 9-20 were not written by Mark but were added later by a scribe. For example, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are two of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts and they do not contain verses 9-20 . In addition, Eusebius and Jerome, church fathers from the fourth century, noted that almost all the Greek manuscripts they had did not include these verses . There are also internal factors that suggest this section was not written by Mark. For example, there are eighteen words in verses 9-20 that are foreign to Mark’s vocabulary . Also, the transition in verse 9 is awkward and does not pick up from where verse 8 left off. Mary Magdalene is introduced in verse 9 as if for the first time, yet she had already been mentioned in Mark 15:40, 47 and 16:1. Lastly, ending the Gospel of Mark at verse 8 with “trembling and astonishment” is consistent with the entirety of Mark’s narrative. This is because astonishment is a consistent theme throughout Mark’s gospel (Mark 4:41; 5:15, 33, 42; 6:51; 9:6, 15, 32; 10:24, 32; 11:18; 12:17; 16:5). Taking the internal and external evidence into account, it’s safe to conclude that Mark probably did not write verses 9-20. Rather, it is likely that a scribe who had access to the other gospels felt that Mark’s ending was incomplete and thus provided an ending based on the ending of the other gospels.
So how did these verses end up in our modern translations and why have they stayed? In 1611, the Bible was translated into what is known as the King James Version. This version included verses 9-20 because the translation was based on newer manuscripts that included them . Since that time, older manuscripts have been found that excluded vv. 9-20. However, since most Greek manuscripts include this section, Bible translators thought it best to include the verses but put them in brackets, noting that they are not included in earlier manuscripts. This is the best way to deal with this controversy. Putting
these verses in brackets reveals the incredible integrity of the Bible translators. It’s a way to show that there is uncertainty about these verses, but at the same time, there is nothing to hide. More significantly, they have remained part of current Bible translations because they are consistent with the whole revelation of Scripture and teach nothing that would contradict other Scripture.
It is also important to note that some have used a verse from this passage to assert that baptism is necessary for salvation. A closer look at this verse reveals that’s not the case. Verse 16 reads, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” When studying this verse, one must correctly recognize what it actually says rather than what it seems to be saying. This verse only asserts that a saved person is characterized by belief and baptism. It does not say that one will be saved because of baptism. Rather, it affirms that true faith is supported by correct response. Those who truly believe will obey the command to be baptized, but it does not assert that baptism is necessary for salvation. This is further supported by the second half of the verse, which asserts that those who are condemned will be condemned based on their unbelief, not because they weren’t baptized. Thus, this verse is consistent with the rest of Scripture’s teaching concerning salvation.
In conclusion, Mark 16:9-20 was likely added later by a scribe. This does not mean the Bible is untrustworthy or uninspired. Although added later, verses 9-20 are entirely consistent with the whole revelation of Scripture and do not contradict any teachings of the Bible. Thus, it has been included in current Bible translations despite controversy about whether Mark truly wrote it. The best way to handle this passage is to put it in brackets, noting that it is not included in some of the early manuscripts. This is the most honest way to show the reader that there is nothing to hide. We should find great encouragement and joy in the fact God has preserved His Word to us for thousands of years. The church fathers died brutal deaths because they believed the very words we are privileged to read in our Bibles today. The Word of God is inspired and completely trustworthy because it possesses the very nature of the One who revealed it to us.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.” Psalm 19:7-9
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-Josh White, Pastoral Coordinator