When you get to Mark 16:8, you see a couple of little notes which indicate that most of the earliest manuscripts we have of the Gospel finish about here, however, some, including those that were relied upon for much of the time when the Bible was first being translated into English offer either a shorter or longer ending. The longer one is the famous one that talks about the believers being commissioned and empowered to do great and miraculous things in the name of Jesus.
The Reliability of Scripture
So, what should we do here? Well, first of all, we can have confidence in the reliability of Scripture. There are three things we can say here. First of all, for a book dependent upon being passed on over 2000 years, it is incredible that there are only two significant passages with this kind of question. This is one, the other is in John 8 where the woman is caught in adultery.
Secondly, we can see the care that has gone into preserving the correct text of Scripture. There is methodology used to ensure that what we have in front of us is accurate and true. We can also see the upfront honesty of Biblical scholars and translators too. They do not mythologise revelation but are open about the challenges faced.
Thirdly, it’s important to say that when we talk about infallibility and inerrancy, we are specifically talking about the original manuscripts. Infallibility and inerrancy are two words that refer to Scripture being correct an without error in every detail. Howe much does this matter if we are talking about the originals only? Well quite a lot because whilst humans can make errors in copying and translating, it is still possible to identify where those errors are providing the original foundation is secure. Furthermore, by describing God’s word as true and without error, we are saying something important about God’s character, that he is true, that he does not mistake s and does not lie.
So, which ending of Mark should we go with? My preference is to stick with the shorter ending. The fact that older manuscripts finish here suggests that this is the most likely ending. How then did we end up with additional options?
Well, it seems that the Gospel finishes abruptly and with a lot of things unresolved as the disciples are still trying to understand things and make sense. It also finishes without us really meeting the risen Jesus. This has left some thinking that perhaps the ending was lost to those manuscripts so that either the one we have is the original cut off or that someone later resupplied an attempt to capture the ending.
However, there are two good reasons for the ending being at verse 8. First, structurally and format wise this fits with the length of text to fit to a scroll and to be read in one hour. It also fits the brevity and pace of Mark’s story telling. Secondly, in terms of content, it may well have been that Mark intended to finish with a little bit of chaos and even that initial sense of uncertainty. He would have known that others were going to write further and finishing where he did would haver encouraged more and deeper investigation.
So, how then would the longer ending have come about? It is possible that someone concerned about the abrupt ending wanted to fill in the gaps for the readers. It may well even have been that Mark himself decided to add a postscript at a later date. We seem to assume that these books in the Bible were just written down with one take. If someone else added the postscript then they would not have intended for us to see it as Scripture. Remember that things like chapters and verses were added much later. They would have been adding their own notes, just like you might find printed in a study Bible or even how you might make comments in a journalling Bible. Pre printing though it would not always have been so easy to see where one text stopped and another started without taking a closer look at syntax, vocabulary and style.
What should we do with the alternative endings?
My advice would be that we treat the longer endings as we would any other commentary by early Christian leaders. We don’t rely on it as inspired Scripture but we treat it as helpful and wise commentary. It is obviously a summary of things Jesus actually had said and so that gives it extra weight. Remember that Jesus said and did far more than is included in Scripture. So, even though we might not choose to preach all the way through the chapter, we can reflect on the rest of the chapter, test it against what is said elsewhere in Scripture and find help and encouragement from it.