Since I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Mark for about nine months total (with a few weeks off here and there) I thought I’d share with you one of the most daunting aspects of preaching through this particular book. If you pay attention to the last chapter of Mark in your English Bible, most of you will notice that verses 9-20 are marked in some way (probably with brackets) and a note is added telling you that the earliest manuscripts do not contain these verses.
Most people probably don’t even notice these things, but for those who do significant questions may arise. First of all, what does this kind of note even mean? Second, how should this impact what we believe about the Bible and what we preach and teach? I hope, in a short series of articles, to address these two questions without confusing the matter further or getting too deeply into technical issues that might have you snoring at your computer before you finish reading. With that in mind, I’d like to begin to answer the first question in this article and then devote more time later to answering the second question.
So, what exactly do these kinds of notes mean? First of all, let me say that they do not mean that the authority or even the inerrancy of the Bible are called into question. When we speak of the truthfulness of the Bible and of its authority over us, particularly with respect to the New Testament, we are actually speaking of the original writings of the New Testament authors. So, for instances, it is not my printed copy of the New Testament that is inerrant or even the handwritten copy of a scribe around the year AD 500. Rather, the autograph, or the original writing is inerrant.
What these kinds of notes are indicating is that simple fact that we do not possess any of the autographs of the New Testament writings. That may sound a bit terrifying for those committed to biblical authority until we realize that we don’t have the autographs of any ancient writings. What we have are handwritten copies called manuscripts. When it comes to the New Testament, we have many times more manuscripts than we do for any other ancient writing.
Now, the way in which we determine what the autographs say is by comparing these many manuscripts and studying the places where they differ. The discipline of comparing ancient manuscripts so as to determine the original reading of the autograph is called textual criticism. Most of the time, the differences between the manuscripts of the New Testament have no effect upon the meaning of the passage in question. So, for instance, we often see scribes changing “Christ Jesus” to “Jesus Christ” or vice versa. Oftentimes, the difference simply boils down to how a word is to be spelled. Considering that dictionaries and standardized spelling did not exist in the ancient world, it is no surprise that two scribes might write the same word in different ways. Certainly, there are places where the meaning of the text is affected, and we will examine some of those later.
There are two instances in the New Testament in which a large portion of the text (12 verses in both instances) is present in some manuscripts and not in others. The ending of the Gospel of Mark is one of these instances. The earliest manuscripts end at verse 8, while later manuscripts contain extra verses. It is not my intention to go into a great deal of detail about the ending of Mark in this article, but simply to point out that while this particular textual variant is large and certainly does affect the meaning of the text, most of the time this is simply not the case.
The reasons that these various endings are daunting for any preacher who chooses to preach through the Gospel of Mark is simple. First, there is the obvious fact that these kinds of difficulties in the New Testament will cause many to doubt its truthfulness and trustworthiness. While I don’t think that is warranted, I know that some people will move in that direction when they notice things. It is tempting to ignore the problem altogether, but that would not be fitting for one whose job it is to proclaim the truth. Second, while I believe there are compelling reasons for believing that we do know what Mark actually wrote, I also realize that giving those reasons in a sermon without losing the congregation is nearly impossible.
Most preachers, I imagine, hope and pray that they can preach past these kinds of thorny issues without anyone noticing. I’m not that kind of preacher. I’d rather address the issue head on and build, rather than shake, your confidence in the total truthfulness and reliability of God’s Word. To that end, I have elected not to bore the congregation on a Sunday morning, but to provide answers in this series of blog articles several months before we even get to the ending of Mark in our sermons series.