A highly controversial point in religious circles is whether Mark 16:9-20 is actually part of Scripture. Although it appears in the King James and New King James versions, many other translations either label this section as an appendix or leave it in the footnotes, as does the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The Moffatt translation, together with the Goodspeed translation and others, not only has the long ending found in the King James Version, but it also has another shorter ending.
In A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1971), Bruce Metzger, a noted authority on textual matters, writes:
The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts (Aleph and B), from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis (itk), the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written AD 897 and AD 913).
Yet, he also notes, "The traditional ending of Mark, so familiar through the AV and other translations of the Textus Receptus [Received Text], is present in the vast number of witnesses" (our emphasis). Despite this, he concludes that the longer ending is "secondary," meaning "that the section was excerpted from another document, dating perhaps from the first half of the second century." To bolster his conclusion, he cites "internal evidence": non-Markan vocabulary and style within the section and the "awkward" connection between verse 8 and verses 9-20.
Contrary to this, the longer ending to Mark's gospel is quoted extremely early in church history as Markan. Between AD 182 and 188, Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, quotes Mark 16:19 as a part of Mark's account (Against Heresies iii.10.6). There are allusions to these disputed verses in even earlier writings, although not as true quotations.
Not only did Irenaeus accept it as a part of Mark's gospel when arguing with "heretics," but, says James Hastings:
No writer before Eusebius [(c. AD 260-340) court favorite and church historian in the days of the Roman emperor Constantine] is known to have rejected them, and their presence in all later MSS [manuscripts] shows that the successors of Eusebius, in spite of his great authority, did not follow his judgment in the matter.
In addition, records of the traditional liturgical calendars of several churches (for instance, the Greek, Syrian, Armenian, and Coptic churches), originating before the fourth century, include these disputed verses without reservation as part of the services. These facts point plainly to the great antiquity of the longer ending as preserved in the common English versions.
In his exhaustive study, "'The Last Twelve Verses of the Gospel According to St. Mark Vindicated Against Recent Objectors and Established" (1871), Dean John William Burgon evaluates these verses on stylistic and historical grounds and comes to the exact opposite conclusion to Metzger. He finds that the claim of their non-authenticity rests on shoddy scholarship and an over-reliance on the Western texts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, which, though early, are at variance with most other biblical manuscripts. He even asserts that Vaticanus contains a blank column where Mark 16:9-20 should be, left there by a scribe to show that it had intentionally been excluded.
If these last verses of Mark's gospel were left out, the book would not come to an orderly conclusion, as does every other book of the Bible. In fact, it would end on notes of fear and failure: "And they [the women who visited Jesus' tomb] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (Mark 16:8)?hardly a fitting ending for an account of hope and salvation.
Further, no Christian doctrine rests on the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. Every point in Mark 16:9-20 ?except for "if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them"?has scriptural backup elsewhere in the New Testament, and even the exception parallels the spirit of the surrounding promises to the disciples. Therefore, even if this concluding section were a later addition, no Christian doctrine is in any way affected.
As for the vocabulary and style differences, in the end they turn out to be highly inflated guesses. Several words are used for the first time in the book, and a few others are used differently than elsewhere. However, these variations are no worse than the style and vocabulary differences between, for example, Paul's Pastoral Epistles and his other letters, John's writing in Revelation and his gospel and epistles, or Peter's two epistles. Authors are not bound to what scholars assume to be the limit of their vocabularies and styles.
Even with all of this proof, the decision comes down to the faithfulness of God. Is God able to preserve His Word or not? Human writings are filled with error, but the Bible is complete, inspired, and wholly preserved through the power of God. We can trust that these verses are an inspired part of the Word of God.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Should Christians Handle Snakes?