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Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

Alleged forgery in the Gospel of Mark

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Forgery is perhaps a rather harsh word. Within Christian religious circles, the term "apocryphal addition" is commonly used to describe a passage that an unknown copyist added to the original manuscript.

Conservative Christians, and some others, believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. This means that God inspired its authors to write error-free text. However, the concept only applies to the original, autograph copies, not to later additions, deletions, "corrections" etc. Thus, the various endings after Mark16:8 are not necessarily inerrant.

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The original ending of Mark:

Some of the oldest copies of the Gospel of Mark, the Sinaitic (circa 370 CE) and Vatican (circa 325 CE), end at Mark 16:8.  Papyrus-45 (a.k.a. P-45) is an even older manuscript of Mark, but it is incomplete; none of its text from Mark 16 has survived. Unknown Christian forgers appear to have added one of two passages after Mark 16:8; each passages comes in various versions. One addition was quoted in the writings of Irenaeus circa 180 CE, 9 and of Hippolytus in the second or third century CE.

Chapter 15 of Mark describes Jesus' death and burial. Chapter 16 describes how Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James), and Salome went to the tomb on Sunday morning. They found that the stone blocking the tomb had rolled back. A young man in the tomb told them that Jesus had risen, and that they should tell the disciples that he had gone to Galilee where they should meet him. The Gospel ends by describing how the women trembled and said nothing to anyone about their experience.

The Gospel is viewed by many as incomplete. It appears to ends abruptly. The reader has been primed to expect an account of the women telling the disciples of the empty tomb, and a subsequent description of a meeting of Jesus and his the disciples in Galilee. However, none is forthcoming.

Theologians have offered 4 explanations for this strange ending:

  1. The writer of the Gospel did actually intend it to end it abruptly. This is a possibility because over a dozen ancient Greek compositions have survived which end sentences with the Greek word "gar" as Mark 16:8 does. 
  2. The author was interrupted (perhaps by death) and never finished the Gospel.
  3. The Gospel of Mark did originally continue beyond Verse 8, but the ending was accidentally destroyed: perhaps the scroll was damaged or the last page of the codex was lost.
  4. Mark 16 originally extended beyond verse 8, where it described the meeting of Jesus and his disciples. However, it was intentionally destroyed because it conflicted with the Gospel of Luke or Matthew. The perpetrator may have felt that Christians might doubt the accuracy of the Christian Scriptures if the Gospels did not agree precisely. Scholars have pointed out that the lost ending of Mark presumably would have described the meeting between Jesus and the disciples as happening in Galilee, whereas Luke says that it occurred near Jerusalem. This explanation also sounds unreasonable, because Mark 16:1 already disagrees with Matthew 28:1 over the number of women who visited the tomb: (Matthew describes that only two women went to the tomb: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Mark 16:1 says there were three women and adds Salome.) Surely, if someone were to go to the effort of destroying the ending of Mark in order to make the Gospels harmonize, then they would have altered Mark 16:1 and also modified:
bullet16:8 to delete a reference to Salome, and
bullet16:7 to change the location of the meeting from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Also, a person who intentionally destroyed the ending would probably have cleaned up the end of verse 8 to make it appear as if that was the true ending, and leave no trace of the forgery.

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Popular endings for Mark

The two most ancient full manuscripts of Mark end mid-sentence with Mark 16:8. A reviewer of this essay commented:

bulletCodex Vaticanus follows 16:8 with a prolonged blank space.
bulletCodex Sinaiticus not only does not contain the original pages of Mark 14:54-Luke 1:56, but features a unique decorative design after 16:8, as if the copyist who made the replacement-pages wished to emphasize that the book was understood to end there. 

A variety of endings appear in later manuscripts:

bulletThe Longer Ending: This consist of verses 9 to 20, and is the ending found most often in Biblical translations. They describe that Jesus visited Mary Magdelene, who told the disciples about the empty tomb. But the disciples did not believe her. Jesus then appeared to two of the disciples who told the others; still they did not believe that he was risen. Afterwards, Jesus was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God. The disciples then followed the Great Commission. Theologians often refer to this passage as the "Marcan Appendix," because it appears to have been written by a later copyist, and not by the author of the rest of the Gospel of Mark.  It "has traditionally been accepted as a canonical part of the gospel and was defined as such by the Council of Trent." 1 The Appendix is incorporated without comment in the King James Version of the Bible. However, more recent authorities suggest that it is a forgery:
bulletA note in recent copies of the New International Version of the Bible states: "The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20."
bulletMost biblical translations that contain a footnote concerning Mark 16 indicating that some manuscripts do not contain these verses.
bulletMohamed Ghounem & Abdur Rahman have commented that approximately 100 Armenian manuscripts and the earliest two Georgian manuscripts do not contain Mark 16:9-20. 2 
bullet"The longer ending...differs in vocabulary and style from the rest of the Gospel, is absent from the best and earliest mss. now available, and was absent from mss. in patristic times. It is most likely a 2nd-cent. compendium of appearance stories based primarily on Luke 24, with some influence from John 20." 3

There is a break in the flow of the story between verses 14 and 15. This might be evidence that the forger used two different sources when creating the longer ending.

The additional passage is quite important for a number of reasons, because it contains important material relating to the duties of Christians to proselytize, the criteria needed for personal salvation, and some of the powers granted to Jesus' disciples:

bulletMark 16:15 includes a direct quotation from Jesus that is usually called the "Great Commission." It instructs the 11 surviving disciples to go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Conservative Christians regard the Great Commission to be their prime directive.
bulletVerse 16 contains Jesus criteria for salvation. In order to be saved, a person must:
bullet"believe" - presumably this refers to belief in the "good news."
bullet"be baptized" - one must first be baptized before one is saved.

This appears to disagree with other passages in the Bible which discuss different criteria for salvation.

bulletJesus told his disciples that they would be able to cast out devils, speak with new tongues, heal the sick, and be immune from death by snake bite or poison. The Church of God with Signs Following have interpreted these verses as the basis of their occasional practices of drinking poison or allowing themselves to be bitten by poisonous snakes. Many have died as a result of this testing of their faith.
bulletThe Shorter Ending: One Old Latin manuscript, the Codex Bobiensis, has survived from circa 400 CE. It contains a "shorter ending" in place of the "long ending."

One translation reads:

"But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation."

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible includes this verse as a footnote.

The validity of this ending is suspect for a number of reasons:
bullet"Earlier in Mark 16, it contains an interpolation which seems to have an affinity with the 'Gospel of Peter'..." 4 That gospel is one of almost 50 gospels that were circulated among the early Christian movement, but which were never accepted into the official canon of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).
bulletPart of Mark 16:8 has been deleted. This text said that the women kept silent about the empty tomb; they told none of the disciples about it. If the copyist had left this verse intact, it would blatantly conflict with the "shorter ending."
bullet"The so-called shorter ending consists of the women's reports to Peter and Jesus' commissioning of the disciples to preach the gospel. Here too the non- Marcan language and the weak ms. evidence indicate that this passage did not close the Gospel." 3
bulletSome theologians believe that the Shorter Ending was probably written by an unknown forger, who based it on the Gospel of Matthew. His motivation was to quickly wrap up the Gospel less abruptly.

bulletThe Freer Logion: This is an apparent forgery in which a copyist inserted text between Mark 16:14 and 16:15. It has been found only in one Greek manuscript, Codex Washingtonensis (a.k.a. Codex W) which dates from the late 4th or early 5th century CE. It has been preserved in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It reads:

"Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And they excused themselves, saying, 'This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits. Therefore reveal your righteousness now'--thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, 'The term of years of Satan's power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was handed over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, that they may inherit the spiritual and imperishable glory of righteousness that is in heaven'." (NRSV).

This addition describes a conversation between the disciples and Jesus in which the disciples complain that Satan does not allow the real power of God to be appreciated. Jesus replied that Satan did not have this power any longer, but that other terrible things will happen in the near future. The addition concludes with a statement on salvation.

The Freer Logion has an interesting message, implying that Satan had lost his power forever. This agrees with liberal Christian theology which treats Satan as a concept of evil, and not as a living, supernatural quasi-deity. It disagrees with conservative Christian theology which regards Satan as a supernatural living entity who remains intensely and continually involved in everyone's life today.

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References:

  1. "Mark, Chapter 16, New American Bible," Footnote 2 at: http://www.usccb.org/nab/
  2. Mohamed Ghounem & Abdur Rahman, "Gospel of Mark?," at: http://www.geocities.com
  3. R.E. Brown, et al., "The New Jerome Biblical Commentary," Pearson PTP, (Reissued 1989). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. Jim Snapp II, "The Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20," at: www.curtisvillechristian.org/
  5. C.M. Laymon, Ed, "Interpreter's One Volume Commentary on the Bible", Abingdon Press, Nashville TN (1991), P. 670-671
  6. Jamieson et al, "The New Commentary on the Whole Bible", Tyndale, Wheaton IL (1990), P. 155-157
  7. J.R. Kohlenberger III, "Precise Parallel New Testament", Oxford University Press, New York NY, (1995)
  8. "Mark 16:19-20 - Authentic and Inspired," The Revival Fellowship at: http://www.trf.org.au/
  9. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," Book III, 10:5-6.

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Copyright © 1997 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-MAR-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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