If you are reading the New International Version of Mark 16.1–8, you will find a note after verse 8 that says, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9–20.” A note in the NIV Study Bible further explains: “Serious doubt exists as to whether these verses belong to the Gospel of Mark. They are absent from important early manuscripts and display certain peculiarities of vocabulary, style and theological content that are unlike the rest of Mark. His Gospel probably ended at 16:8, or its original ending has been lost.”
I mention this all this for two reasons: (1) to educate and (2) to reassure. Unlike today, when we have desktop printers and Xerox machines, in the ancient world, all books were copied out by hand. An ancient author’s original writing is usually referred to as the autograph (Greek for “self written.”) Copies of the autograph are referred to as manuscripts (Latin for “hand written”). The process of reproducing an author’s work by hand sometimes led to copy errors, such as misspelled words and misplaced sentences. Because we have so many manuscripts of the books of the New Testament, however, we can reliably reconstruct the autographs of the biblical writers. Indeed, the New Testament is by far the best-attested, most reliable document to emerge from the ancient world. That is, in and of itself, reassuring.
Also reassuring is the fact that no biblical doctrine depends on any textual variant, a phrase that describes the differences between the manuscripts. This is especially true of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Recently, I engaged in an informal online debate with a skeptic of the resurrection. He argued that Mark’s Gospel is the earliest and most reliable source of information about Christ. Because Mark 16.9–20 is not part of the autograph, however, he further argued that Mark’s Gospel knows nothing of Christ’s resurrection. Instead, he concluded, later New Testament writers ginned up the doctrine of the resurrection in order to advance some socio-political agenda.
Unfortunately, this skeptical argument is absolutely wrong. Even a cursory survey of Mark’s Gospel reveals three separate instances in which Christ prophesies his death in Jerusalem and resurrection three days later (Mark 8.31, 9.31, 10.34). All of these verses are part of Mark’s autograph. Even more devastating for the skeptical argument is Mark 16.6–7, which is also part of the autograph: “‘Don’t be alarmed,’ [the young man] said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
What is odd about Mark’s ending, in other words, is not that it knows nothing of Christ’s resurrection. No, what is odd is the women’s reaction: “trembling and bewildered” and “afraid.” But then again, how would you react in the presence of a Power which even death could not conquer?