What’s Up With the Ending of Mark?

[please note that this article is written to be accessible to the average Christian, but deals with a complex subject that requires, at times, reference to detailed lines of evidence.  Please refer to the footnotes for additional explanations and evidence for points made in the main body of the article]

Have you ever been following along in your Bible during a sermon and been distracted by seeing something like this:  [the earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20]?[1] Worse, have you been distracted by such a comment only to be dismayed when the pastor skipped over it as though it wasn’t there, leaving your questions, concerns and maybe even doubts unacknowledged and unaddressed?

We don’t find these things very often in the Bible, but they are there, and it’s important for Christians to know how to think about them…and how to answer questions about them that come from our kids, from skeptics and seekers or even from an unsettled place in our own hearts.

In both of my roles as a pastor and a biblical scholar, I’m often asked questions about this sort of thing, and one part of the Bible that often seems to be the source of the question is the ending of the Gospel of Mark. The final chapter of the Gospel of Mark has 20 verses, but after v. 8 most Bibles have a note implying that vv.9-20 are…questionable.  So what a lot of people want to know is, what’s the deal with the ending of Mark?

Actually, this question usually has two components.  The first is this:  did the Gospel of Mark originally contain 16:9-20 or were those verses added later?  The second component of the question about Mark’s ending is this:  if vs. 9-20 weren’t in the original, then why would the Gospel of Mark have ended so abruptly without mentioning the resurrection of Christ?  Let’s deal with each of these in turn.

Where Does the Gospel of Mark End?

Did the original text of Mark’s Gospel contain 16:9-20 or did it end with the rather enigmatic verse 8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”? Most modern English versions contain a footnote or a bracketed comment within the body of the text after v.8 with some comment like “[the earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20]”.  What does this mean?

What it means is really quite simple:  when we look at all the ancient copies of Mark 16 we’ve discovered, the very oldest of these copies do not have v. 9-20 but rather end with v. 8.  To be clear, there are not a great many of these early manuscripts and the majority of the ancient copies have additional material after v.8 (but not always the full ending found in vv.9-20[2]), but the oldest of these copies do end at v.8

Generally speaking, when we’re looking to reconstruct the original wording of an ancient document, we prefer copies of that document which are closest in time to the original. The closer in time to the original, the fewer the intermediary steps between them.  In other words, we prefer a copy of a copy rather than a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.  Makes sense, right?  Each intermediary step provides a new opportunity for copyist errors or alterations to creep into the original text, so the fewer the intermediary steps the better.  This simply means that we tend, at least at the beginning of the process,[3] to prefer the oldest manuscripts when verifying the wording of an original text.  In this case, the oldest manuscript evidence we have for Mark 16 does not have 9-20.  There are, however, other lines of evidence such as possible quotations by early Christian writers which may give evidence of the early existence of vv.9-20 (see below).   So the manuscript evidence is by no means conclusive, but the fact that the oldest manuscripts do not have vv.9-20 raises important questions.

In most cases, the fact that the earliest copies agree with one another but not with later copies would be enough to convince scholars of the original text.  However, sometimes things get a bit muddier, as they are here.  First, the number of these earliest manuscripts that do not have vv.9-20 is quite small (see below). Second, the earliest evidence for the inclusion of vv.9-20 is not really all that much later in the grand scheme of things; the earliest manuscript including these verses dates to the 5th century.  Third, as you might imagine, most people cannot help but prefer what we call the majority reading; that is, when we have variations among the copies, the variation that is present in the largest number of manuscripts will tend to be favored by many.[4] In practice, it’s nice when the earliest manuscripts and the majority reading agree with one another and this is often the case, but it’s not always the case.  Sometimes the oldest manuscripts have a reading that differs from the majority reading as found in later manuscripts.  That’s why you find those odd notes after Mark 16:8.  See, the oldest manuscripts of Mark 16 end at v. 8, but when we survey all the manuscripts of Mark 16, it turns out that the majority of them have vv.9-20.[5] So what happened? There are essentially three possibilities.

Possibility # 1 – Mark originally ended at 16:20

The first possible explanation is that the original text of Mark 16 included vv.9-20 but a very early copy omitted (or lost) these verses for some reason and then several other very early copies were based on this faulty copy.  Meanwhile, other early copies accurately kept vv.9-20 and became the basis for the majority of later copies but were themselves lost, leaving only later manuscripts as evidence of the original wording. This is certainly possible, but there are some difficulties with this view.  First, it is difficult – though certainly not impossible[6] – to imagine why these verses would have been lost from Mark. Second, it seems rather unlikely that all of the earliest copies of Mark containing these verses were lost while the texts which do not have them were preserved. Yet no texts with these verses dating to the earliest period of transmission have been found, though there is certainly evidence that the Longer Ending was known during this same time frame.[7] For a helpful online summary of the ancient evidence for and against the originality of vv.9-20, you might want to look at Ben C. Smith’s article (who decides against their originality) and also James Snapp’s article (who decides for their originality).

Possibility # 2 – Mark originally ended at 16:8

The second possible explanation is that the original text of Mark 16 ended at verse 8 and verses 9-20 were added to some later copy which then became the basis for many further copies.  In my opinion, this better explains vv.9-20 for X reasons.  First, I think it more plausible that someone added an ending to what, on the surface at least, feels like an otherwise abrupt conclusion to the book than that someone removed[8] an ending that created this unsatisfying conclusion. Second, there is the observation that Matthew and Luke, who seem to have depended on Mark’s Gospel frequently, do not parallel this longer ending.  This suggests to me that they had no knowledge of vv.9-20.[9] Third, the content of Mark 16:9-20 is somewhat incongruous with the rest of the book.[10] Fourth, there are some significant linguistic differences between vv.9-20 and the rest of Mark.[11] None of these issues are, alone, convincing, but the cumulative effect of them is enough to sway my opinion in the direction of saying that Mark 16:9-20 were not part of Mark’s original, inspired text. Now, some will argue that this statement is tantamount to admission that the Bible is not inspired,[12] but the logic is faulty.  Inerrancy has always been understood to reside in the autographs and not the later copies or translations.  To say that a later addition to the original text requires an admission of error in the original is no different than saying that the addition of verse and chapter numbers means that the text is filled with errors.

However, this view has difficulties as well.  First, this view would need to explain why the additional vv.9-20 were added, particularly since they seem to have been added to the text in the West at a very early date. Second, if the Gospel originally ended at 16:8, then one must offer some explanation as to why this would have been the case, since 16:8 seems a terribly abrupt ending. Third, this view would have to explain why the faulty copy/copies became the basis for so many future copies.

Why Does Mark End So Abruptly?

As I stated above, I find the second explanation to be somewhat more likely.  While it does have some difficulties, mentioned immediately above, these difficulties are not irresolvable and in fact, solutions are not all that difficult to find. One possibility is that v.8 was not intended to be the original ending but the original ending was lost, or even never completed.[13] While possible, I do not find this suggestion terribly plausible.  Another possibility is simply that the original ending of Mark at 16:8 was unsatisfying for later readers.  If Mark’s Gospel originally ended at 16:8, then it creates something of a cliffhanger, giving little or no real detail about the resurrection of Christ. When read by people already familiar with the post-resurrection details, or when read in conjunction with the other three Gospels, this might not be of any significance. However, if Mark were being read in isolation, there could have been concern that the abrupt ending would cause confusion. So perhaps someone added this final bit to Mark as a kind of summation of the post-resurrection ministry of Jesus as recounted in the other Gospels[14] for the benefit of later readers in less-than-ideal circumstances.[15]

Why wouldn’t Mark have originally included more detail about the resurrection? This is an important question that must be addressed, but we’ll pick that up in just a moment.  For now, we just need to see that the cliffhanger ending of Mark 16:8 might easily cause early Christian copyists to want to “finish the story” so-to-speak for their audience. It seems quite plausible to me that the longer ending added to Mark 16 was not originally intended to be thought part of the inspired text but was merely a kind of editorial “wrapping up” of the story, based on material found in the other Gospels and perhaps in the book of Acts.[16] If this provided a more satisfying ending to Mark, especially when it was read in isolation from the other Gospels, this would explain why it was copied frequently and perhaps in the process of copying, the distinction between the original text and this helpful summation of the post-resurrection ministry of Jesus got lost.  In this way we might have a fairly plausible answer for all of the objections raised above.  I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is the obvious or only possible answer to the mystery of Mark 16:9-20, but it seems to satisfactorily account for the evidence currently available.

Why the Cliffhanger?

There is, however, still one major question to be answered:  why would Mark have ended his Gospel so abruptly at 16:8?  This is, it seems to me, the most difficult objection to the theory that Mark 16:9-20 was a later addition.  Why would a Gospel, which is the retelling of the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection to life, leave off all the details about the most important bit, the resurrection itself?

My proposal is very simple:  because Mark is presenting the preface to the Gospel rather than writing an account of the Gospel message itself.  What I mean is this:  Mark’s audience was already well-familiar with the story of Christ’s resurrection and this, above all else, was the core of Christian proclamation in the early years of the church. Note that in Acts 1:22, when tasked with selecting a new apostle, the remaining 11 apostles said “for one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”  Later in Acts 4:2 we read that some Jewish leaders were disturbed because the apostles were “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.”    Again, just a few verses later we read that “the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”  In other words, for the early church, the heart of the Gospel message was the resurrection. This is quite understandable since the Greek term, euangelion (translated as “gospel” or “good news”) originally referred to a military victory. The resurrection was the undeniable declaration that Jesus had defeated death and sin.

Now, if the Gospel message was  the proclamation of the resurrection, then Mark’s audience (which appears to have been composed primarily for Christians in Rome) would have already known it.  What Mark set out to do, I am suggesting, is not to proclaim to his audience the Gospel itself, but to give them the story leading up to it.  He was, in a very real sense, giving what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.” If this is correct then it might not be accurate to call the book of Mark a “Gospel” in the strictest sense, but this a minor issue of terminology.

Interestingly, there is some indirect evidence for this view of Mark found in the very beginning of the text.  Most translations render Mark 1:1 this way:  “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…”. This is a perfectly good translation and the Greek is relatively straightforward.[17] What is not quite so obvious, however, is to what “the beginning” refers.  We normally read it and, without giving it much thought, assume it is speaking of the following sentence; i.e. we take it to mean something like: “Here is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:  As it is written in the prophets…”  This is certainly possible, but it is problematic on several levels.  First, why introduce the beginning at all?  That seems like a strange and redundant thing to do, doesn’t it?  “Here is the beginning of my book:  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  What purpose would this serve?  Second, I’m aware of no other instances in which the Greek word archē (translated “beginning” here) is used in this way; i.e. as a designation for a literary section.

If, however, this phrase was a kind of introduction to the entire book of Mark, then the phrase makes perfect sense:  Mark is telling his audience that he is about to give them the back-story to the Gospel of the resurrection they have heard, the “rest of the story” so to speak.  Then the words “the Gospel” refer not to the book of Mark itself but to the message of the resurrection which the audience already knew.  In any event, it would be very odd to call a book “the Gospel” and then have so little information about the very thing which the early church held to be the heart of the Gospel!

In effect then, I am suggesting that the first clause of the book of Mark means “This book is the background to the Gospel.”  There are some additional lines of evidence for this view of the book of Mark, but they involve technical discussions beyond the scope of this type of article.  In any event, the suggestion here that Mark originally ended at 16:8 because he was giving the back-story to the resurrection account his audience already knew does not depend on acceptance of this view of the genre of Mark.  If true, however, it does strengthen the theory.

So What?

At the end of the day, what does it matter?  Well, there are at least two things of significance involved in this discussion.  First, some skeptics charge that the Gospel of Mark, in its earliest form, did not have a resurrection account.  This then becomes support for the charge that Christians invented the resurrection story only many years after the life of Christ.  If, however, the book of Mark was intended as background to the Gospel which was itself primarily defined by the resurrection account, then this charge becomes meaningless.[18] Second, while limited, there are a few other passages in the Bible where this issue of the manuscript evidence comes into play.  Unfortunately, most churches avoid the topic altogether, leaving Christians uncertain and uncomfortable because they don’t know how to think about those footnotes or comments they see in their Bibles.  Discussion about passages like Mark 16:9-20 helps clarify what precisely is going on and helps us see that very little of any significance is at stake in these “disputed” passages.  Consider the passage above and ask yourself, “If this passage is not part of inspired Scripture, what exactly do we lose?”  Even a quick look will make it evident that all the important material in Mark 16:9-20 is found in other undisputed parts of the New Testament.  This holds true for all the other “disputed” passages; there is no doctrinal significance to these passages, so we don’t need to worry that a handful of these anomalies somehow means that the Bible is unreliable.

[1] Sometimes these notes are in the body of the text, but set apart with brackets.  Sometimes they’re in footnotes…like this one!

[2] There are essentially four different endings to Mark found in the corpus of ancient manuscripts:  1) the Freer Logion which has the text of v.9-20 but inserts several sentences about Christ’s defeat of Satan between v. 14 and 15; 2) the Shorter Ending which adds after v.8 only a sentence about the women reporting to Peter and then a sentence summarizing Jesus’ command to proclaim the message of salvation; 3) the Longer Ending which has vv.9-20; 4) the short ending which concludes at v.8.  Of these, only the last two enjoy enough manuscript evidence to be considered viable candidates for having been written by Mark himself..

[3] It is possible, of course, for an earlier copy to be more significantly altered than a later copy.  Suppose there were two copies made of an original text, A and B, of which B had a significant change from the original. Now, suppose that both A and B were copied frequently but that, for whatever reason, the earliest copies of A were lost whereas the earliest copies of B remained.  In subsequent years we would find that it the earliest copies supported the incorrect reading.

[4] This is not necessarily the approach taken by professional text critics, but it is often adopted by lay-persons.

[5] A few also have some other readings, see footnote2.

[6] For instance, since most of the early evidence for Mark ending at v.8 comes from the East, it could be that the last part of Mark 16 was lost while travelling from Rome to Egypt.  It is certainly plausible that any damage which occurred to the manuscript would be worst at the beginning or ending since this would be the physical part of the text which was most exposed.  So damage to the end of the manuscript might have been contained there, leaving the rest of the manuscript perfectly serviceable.  Then, this damaged manuscript became the basis for other copies in the East, some of which represent the very earliest manuscripts we have found to date.  The major problem with this view seems to me to be that the bearer of this damaged scroll would have known that his copy was no longer complete.  Why wouldn’t he have done what was necessary to replace the damaged text or at least included a note in the later copies indicating that the last bit of material had been lost?

[7] For those of you interested in the more technical side of this discussion, the earliest manuscripts that end at v.8 are the Sinaiticus (also called Aleph) and Vaticanus (also called B) which both date to the 4th century. The Syriac Sinaitic (3rd/4th century) and Coptic Sahidic (3rd/4th century) translations and evidence from Eusebius (4th century) also support the ending at v.8.  The earliest evidence for the inclusion of vv.9-20 appears to be the 5th century Alexandrinus codex.  The significance of this difference should not be overstated, however.  As mentioned in footnote 6, there are possible explanations for why earlier texts which included vv.9-20 have been lost and these do not necessitate that these verses were a later addition.  Conversely, there is some evidence that the Long Ending was known at an earlier date.  The Vaticanus text, cited above as evidence for the Short Ending since it ends at v.8, does include a long blank space before beginning the Gospel of Luke.  This space is sufficient to insert vv.9-20.  This might indicate that the scribe who produced the Vaticanus manuscript was aware of vv.9-20 but did not have access to them.  On the other hand, it could just as easily mean that he had access to them but was skeptical about their authenticity; this view might be supported by the fact that the scribe placed kata Markon (according to Mark) after v.8 but before the space, thus leaving room for the additional verses but signaling the end of the inspired text.  It is impossible to judge between these two options but it does at least strongly suggest that vv.9-20 were known by the 3rd/4th century.  But this sort of inference is hardly necessary since evidence from 2nd/3rd century writers such as Tatian and Irenaeus clearly demonstrate the awareness of vv.9-20 in the West.

[8] While it is possible that the loss of vv.9-20 could have been accidental, the problem still stands.  It is difficult to imagine that someone a) knowing that the original ending was longer and b) apparently having had access to the original, longer ending at one time would have been content to conclude the book at v.8 and leave no indication that it was known to be incomplete.

[9] To be fair, some scholars do see possible parallels between Luke 24:11 and Mark 16:10-11, but I do not find the parallel strong or in keeping with Luke’s usual pattern when relying on Mark.  First, the Long Ending of Mark speaks only of Mary Magdalene’s witness while Luke speaks of the witness of several women.  Second, Luke includes the statement that the women’s story “appeared before them as nonsense” where Mark has nothing to this effect.  On the whole, there is not enough evidence to argue convincingly that Luke is dependent on the Long Ending of Mark for his text.

[10] For instance, v.16:9 describes Mary Magdalene as the woman “from whom he had cast out seven demons”.  This is the first time she has been identified as such in Mark, though she has already appeared in 15:40, 47.  I can think of no plausible reason for Mark to have waited until the second mention of her to give this description. Another issue is the harsh condemnation in 16:16:  He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.  Certainly there is no parallel to this in Matthew’s account of the Great Commission and overall, it simply does not comport well with the overall tone with which Mark has treated belief and unbelief up to this point. I am not questioning the theological accuracy of the statement but merely whether Mark actually penned this sentence.  Another issue is the fact that up to v.8, Mark has spoken of several women as witnesses whereas in v.9 only Mary Magdalene is mentioned.

[11] For instance, the opening words of v. 9 have Jesus as the subject when the closing words of v.8 have Mary Magdalene as the subject, an abrupt shift.  The disjunction is made worse by the fact that v.8 indicates that Mary said nothing, but v.10 has her reporting the Resurrection.  In between we have only v.9 which reads like the introduction to a whole new section (see footnote 10).  There is also the observation that Mark 16:11 uses the present tense to say that “…he was alive”, a fact not obvious in English translations.  Literally, the verse reads that “…they heard that he lives…”.  Theologically this presents no difficulty, but it is very awkward grammar.  One would have expected Mark to use an infinitive, as Luke does in Luke 24:23 to express the same sentiment.  The use of the present tense is acceptable in this case and certainly has profound theological implications, but it is out of step with Mark’s normal grammar.  Other anomalies exist, enough for Wallace to have said – though I think overstating the case – that “there is not a single passage in Mark 1:1-16:8 comparable to the stylistic, grammatical and lexical anomalies in 16:9-20”; Daniel Wallace, “Mark 16:8 as the Conclusion to the Second Gospel” in Perspectives on the Ending of Mark:  Four Views, ed. by David Alan Black (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2008), 30.

[12] See, for instance Richard Carrier’s claim to this effect in his article on mark in the so-called “errnacywiki”; http://www.errancywiki.com/index.php?title=Legends2


[13] In favor of this view is the fact that Mark 16:8 ends with the Greek word gar, typically translated as “for”. This would be a strange word to end the book on.  However, it would not have been grammatically incorrect. Gar never stands at the beginning of a clause which means that, in a two-word clause such as occurs at the end of Mark 16:8, gar would have to appear in precisely this position; David DeSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: contexts, methods & ministry formation (Intervarsity Press, 2004), 225. Gar is frequently found at the end of sentences or paragraphs.  However, this is, to the best of my knowledge, the only known instance of an author ending a book with this word, which does  rather suggest the possibility of an original longer ending.

[14] Much of the material found in Mark 16:9-20 can be found in the post-resurrection accounts of Matthew, Luke and John.  Where there are differences, the material may have been borrowed from oral tradition or perhaps material in the book of Acts (see below).

[15] Such as not having access to the eyewitness accounts or to the other Gospels which contained details of such accounts.  Assuming Markan priority, it is even likely that very early copies of the text included this summation because they were disseminating the manuscript in locales where they expected Mark to be the only source of such information.

[16] Regarding the possibility that Acts provided some material for this addition, note that part of what Jesus is pictured as saying here in Mark is that his followers will be able to pick up snakes and not be hurt by them.  This is intriguingly similar to the report of Paul’s survival of a viper bite found in Acts 28; though there are certainly differences.  Paul, for instance was bitten by a viper unexpectedly, rather than having picked it up intentionally.  Still, this is the closest biblical parallel to the bit about the serpent in Mk 16:18.

[17] The only odd thing here is that the word archē has no accompanying preposition or article.  An unaccompanied archē used as the beginning of a sentence is fairly unusual.  We see this pattern only in the poetic sections of the LXX.

[18] In any event, even apart from the longer ending of Mark, the book clearly points to the resurrection:   “Don’t be alarmed,” [the young man in white] said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.” (Mark 16:6)