Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Christian Origins: 7. Interpolations

7. Interpolations

Missing Ending in Mark

It comes as a surprise to many Christians that the Gospel of Mark did not originally have the ending that our Bibles come with today. The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark do not have verses 16:9-20. Instead, they end at verse 16:8 with Mary Magdalene and her two companions witnessing an empty tomb and being told by a young man that Jesus has risen. There are no post-resurrection appearances by Jesus in this gospel!

If the ending we have is not original, how did we get the ending that we have today? Some of the later manuscripts have the ending that most Bibles carry today. Many modern Bibles in fact, also make a note of the fact that these are later additions. If this is news to you, go ahead and check your Bible.
In fact, we know of as many as five different endings. We know of what is called the 'original ending' (OE), a 'longer ending' (LE), a 'shorter ending' (SE) a 'very long ending' (VLE), and a variant reading in Codex Bobiensis, the Bobbio Ending (BE). We also have manuscripts which have the SE followed by the LE. [updated]

The view of mainstream scholars is that the original ended at verse 16:8. There is a virtual unanimity about this among the critical scholarship. [1]

Nativity and Post-resurrection

When Matthew and Luke draw on Mark, they pretty much follow the sequence set by Mark. They do change things to suit their tastes, but the plot line is pretty much the same. However, Mark starts his Gospel with an adult Jesus preaching in Galilee and does not provide a birth narrative. As we saw earlier, the earliest versions of this Gospel did not have a post-resurrection narrative either.
So, when Matthew and Luke came to supply these details they go off in different directions. They have different dates and locations. The details are very very different! This is a tell-tale sign that it is the authors' creativity at work rather than an attempt at recording history.


The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century by Gutenberg. This device revolutionized the way books were published. Books could now be mass produced. Every single copy would be an exact replica.

Prior to that books were hand written. When the books in the Bible were originally written, they were also written by hand. They were written on papyrus scrolls and parchments. When someone wanted a copy, the copy was also made by hand. Unlike the printing press which can churn out exact replicas, a hand written copy more often than not, has errors. When a book goes through multiple iterations of copying, we could easily end up with significant differences. This was true not just of the Bible but of virtually every ancient text.

The oldest Biblical manuscript that we have today is probably P52 (Papyrus numbered 52). It is now preserved at the John Rylands Library at Manchester, UK. It is a teeny tiny fragment containing just thirteen words from the Gospel of John. It is dated by paleography to the second century perhaps even as early as AD 125. The earliest complete manuscripts like Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are from the fourth century. As may be noted, quiet a bit of time has passed between the time the originals were likely written and the earliest copies that we have. This gives a lot of room for errors to creep in. And the manuscripts do not disappoint us. There are a large number of variations between them. For instance, to give you a sense of the magnitude of the problem, there are over three thousand textual variations between Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in the text of the Gospels alone. There are corrections and deletions that may be seen on the manuscript.

All of this is to say that what we have today is at best just an approximation of what was originally written.

In addition to the scribal errors and mistakes, we have a far more serious problem. Since there were no printing presses during ancient times, scribes were in a position to change the text of the book they were copying to make it read the way they wanted it to. And we have a mass of evidence that they frequently took the liberty of doing just that! We call these changes interpolations. The variations in the ending of the Gospel of Mark is a very good example. Scribes who did not like the abrupt ending probably added a few more verses, perhaps to harmonize it with the other Gospels. There seem to have been multiple attempts at this giving us multiple versions of the endings. We know about this only because we have on our hands variant manuscripts.

As noted earlier, our best manuscripts come from the fourth century and later. Over 90% of the Greek manuscripts we have are from after the ninth century AD. The implication is that we are unlikely to be aware of the early redactions and interpolations made in the first second and third centuries because we simply do not have manuscripts from those periods. [2] [3] [4]

We do know from our earlier discussion of the Synoptic problem that the evangelists like Matthew and Luke modified and redacted the Gospel of Mark, to possibly make it read more to their tastes. The scribes who made copies of these texts introduced further changes. The manuscript evidence is available only from the fourth century (the earlier ones are fragments) and the scholars are virtually certain that there are many early interpolations for which we don't have any manuscript evidence for.
[To be continued... Next Chapter: Pseudepigrapha ]


[1] ErrancyWiki.com, "Mark 16:9-20 as Forgery or Fabrication", Richard Carrier, (2009)
[2] Bart D. Ehrman, "Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible and Why We Don't Know About Them", HarperOne (2009).
[3] Bart D. Ehrman, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why", HarperOne (2005).


  1. Why are you hiding the patristic evidence?

    Has someone hidden it from you?

    1. James, please feel free to clarify what you think I am hiding.

    2. Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are the two Greek manuscripts in which the text of Mark stops at 16:8, followed by the closing-title. They were both produced in the 300's, very probably at Caesarea. In both MSS, the copyists indicate, by different means, awareness of an alternative way to end Mark's account.

      Around 140-150, the author of Epistula Apostolorum showed familiarity with Mk. 16:9-20, using its narrative framework and some of its verbiage. In 160 or so, Justin Martyr made a strong allusion to Mk. 16:20. In about 172, Tatian incorporated the passage into his Diatessaron. In about 184, Irenaeus specifically cited Mark 16:19 in Against Heresies Book 3, ch. 10.

      In the very early 200's, Tertullian seems to utilize Mk. 16:18's language in his composition Scorpiace, and may also borrow from 16:15 in some other writings. Hippolytus, slightly later, also used 16:18. In 256, Vincentius of Thibaris summarized Mk. 16:17-18 at the Seventh Council of Carthage. In 258, the anonymous author of De Rebaptismate used 16:14. In 305, the pagan writer Hierocles used 16:18.

      The manuscripts used by these writers have not survived, but the echoes of their MSS, embedded in their writings, should be heard. Our earliest manuscripts, in this particular case, are not our earliest evidence.

      Yours in Christ,

      James Snapp, Jr.

    3. Hi James,

      Thank you for clarifying what you meant. By, the way, I was not "hiding" evidence. :) The patristic evidence I believe is not important enough to fit into this blog post.

      However, the article by Richard Carrier [1] that I cite in the post does address it and adequately, I believe.

      Notice how you say, "showed familiarity", "made a strong allusion", "seems to utilize" etc?

      Here is what Bart Ehrman had to say (quoting from [1]):
      "The MS traditions of virtually all the church fathers show that later copyists tended to "correct" quotations of the Bible to the form of text prevalent in their own day. Consequently, Patristic writings that survive only in Medieval MSS or that are available only in uncritical editions, such as Migne's Patrologia Graeca, are of practically no value for establishing the original wording of the NT. [50]"

    4. Let me quote Richard Carrier some more to address the patristic evidence you cite.

      Epistula Apostolorum:
      "Several passages in the anonymous Epistula Apostolorum (originally composed mid-2nd century) likewise bear no demonstrable connection to the LE (deriving instead from the other Gospels), and we have no reliable text of the latter anyway, only distant translations of it.68"

      Justin Martyr:
      "The earliest author usually cited is Justin Martyr (c. 160 AD), but he provides no real evidence of the presence of the LE in Mark. In only one passage (Apology 1.45.5) he uses together the same three words appearing in Mark 16:20, but does not indicate he is quoting any Gospel there, much less Mark."

      "It's possible that Justin's pupil Tatian incorporated the LE in his Diatessaron (or 'Harmony of the Four Gospels') after 175 A.D. But we cannot confirm that this was originally the case, as we do not have Tatian's version of the Diatessaron.56 We know the Diatessaron had additions and changes made to it over the centuries, few versions agree, and the texts we have now date centuries after Tatian. For example, a famous interpolation in John (on the adulteress, John 7:53-8:11) was evidently not originally in the Diatessaron, yet found its way in centuries later.57 The LE may have done the same."

      "He appears to provide the only reliable evidence that the LE was in any copies of Mark in the 2nd century. But the mss. of Irenaeus are notoriously corrupt and problematic. He only mentions the LE once, and that in a passage that only survives in Latin translation, yet the Latin texts of Irenaeus are among those most tampered with."

      "Supposed evidences of Tertullian's knowledge of the LE (c. 190 A.D.) are invalid because they can more easily derive from the other Gospel texts and Christian teachings that the LE itself drew upon. Passages from Tertullian exhibit no features distinctive of the LE, nor give any indication Tertullian is quoting anything, much less the Gospel of Mark. Tertullian,"

      "Hippolytus (c. 210 A.D.) refers to eaters of the Eucharist becoming immune to poison, which is said to demonstrate knowledge of the LE, but it cannot be anything of the kind.64 It neither quotes the LE, nor mentions snakes, nor even attributes the claim to Jesus, despite the supreme authority this would establish. And unlike the LE, Hippolytus associates the power with the eucharist, not baptism."

      "Cyprian reports that in 256 A.D. bishop Vincentius of Thibaris had said at a council that the Lord "commanded his apostles, saying, 'Go ye, lay on hands in my name, expel demons'. And in another place: 'Go ye and teach the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost'." But the latter is an exact quotation of Matthew 28:19, while the former is not an exact quotation of Mark 16:17:"

      Please feel free to read [1] in its entirety.

    5. Thus the answer to my question is, Yes; you have hidden the patristic evidence because Richard Carrier has misrepresented it to you.

      Not to use an ad hominem approach here, but, are you aware that Richard Carrier thinks that Jesus probably never existed? I suggest (as an alternative to dismantling his specious claims brick by brick) that he brings to the patristic evidence about Mark 16:9-20 the same minimalistic approach that he has brought to the historical evidence about Jesus.

      Yours in Christ,

      James Snapp, Jr.

    6. James, please feel free to show how Carrier has misrepresented it. However a refutation attempt in the comments section here is unlikely to draw a response from Carrier. :)

      I am quite familiar with the Jesus Myth theory and Carrier's support for it. I think the theory carries weight. However that is not the issue at hand here. :)

    7. James, I still don't quite understand what your conclusion is. Is it that the LE is the original ending?

      The point I was trying to make was that there are many known interpolations, the ending of Mark being one of the best known. And the known interpolations give us good reason to think there are many more that we are not aware of, given the patchy manuscript evidence we have from the first, second and third centuries.

      That the interpolations are independent or otherwise does not matter for the point I was trying to make.

    8. The easiest and most efficient next-step would be for me to send you a copy of the research I've done about this, which I would be glad to do. Just send an e-mail -- james (dot] snapp (@) gmail dot com and I will send one to you.

      The theory about Mark 16:9-20 that I support is that Mark stopped at the end of 16:8 unintentionally, and his colleagues attached verses 9-20, which already existed as a freestanding composition, before copies began to be made for use in the churches. Thus, by the normal definition of "original text," verses 9-20 are part of the original text, albeit Mark did not personally attach them. Overly meticulous copyists whose work influenced the Alexandrian transmission-stream excised the passage on the grounds that (1) its inclusion was not approved by Peter (whom they saw as the primary author of the book) and possibly (2) they interpreted John 21 as a better continuation of the main narrative up to 16:8. But everywhere else, copies of Mark circulated with verses 9-20 included, as shown by the second-century patristic evidence and many other pieces of external evidence.

      Yours in Christ,

      James Snapp, Jr.

    9. Hi James,

      I have sent an email to you. However, I should let you know that if you wish get scholarly review, you should make it available to real scholars.

      That said, I do hope you marshal some evidence for your suggestion that the gospel was written by Mark which is again not a view historical-critical scholarship endorses. More so, the idea that Mark's colleagues wrote 16:9-20.


  2. Some other things you said seem problematic. You wrote:

    "In fact, we know of as many as five different endings."

    When you phrase it that way you make it seem as if there are five compositions which were added to the text after 16:8. But that is not the case. The only independent endings found after 16:8 are the usual 12 verses, and the Shorter Ending.

    Calling the ending in Codex W (which = verses 9-20 with the Freer Logion between v. 14 and v. 15) a different ending is like calling someone a different person if a bird lands on his shoulder, or if he gets a few freckles.

    Also, what you are calling “the Bobbio Ending” is the Shorter Ending, very badly copied. Codex Bobbiensis also has an interpolation between Mk. 16:3 and 16:4 but that’s an interpolation, not an ending (inasmuch as the text does not end there).

    Also, I do not understand your statement that in addition to a mix of SE and LE, we know of “OE and SE or OE and LE.” What exactly do you mean by that?

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    1. "When you phrase it that way you make it seem as if there are five compositions which were added to the text after 16:8. But that is not the case. The only independent endings found after 16:8 are the usual 12 verses, and the Shorter Ending."

      I did not say the endings themselves were independent, did I? The endings are indeed related. The article I cited provides a chart that shows how they may have evolved.


      But we still do have five different endings.

      I did not mention the speculation that we might have a lost original ending (LOE) and a double ending (DE).

      "Calling the ending in Codex W (which = verses 9-20 with the Freer Logion between v. 14 and v. 15) a different ending is like calling someone a different person if a bird lands on his shoulder, or if he gets a few freckles."

      Well, if I had said that we had five different Gospels of Mark, then your analogy would have worked. What I said instead, is equivalent to saying that we have five different patterns of bird droppings on the shirt. :)

      "Also, what you are calling “the Bobbio Ending” is the Shorter Ending, very badly copied. Codex Bobbiensis also has an interpolation between Mk. 16:3 and 16:4 but that’s an interpolation, not an ending (inasmuch as the text does not end there)."

      I explicitly called the Bobbio Ending a variant reading.

      "Also, I do not understand your statement that in addition to a mix of SE and LE, we know of “OE and SE or OE and LE.” What exactly do you mean by that?"

      I meant to say that SE and LE are seen together in some manuscripts as well as by themselves. That did not come through very clearly. I'll edit the text so that it is clearer.

    2. You asked, “I did not say the endings themselves were independent, did I?”

      No; you guide your readers to that idea, though, and let them step into it. Why not use specific language instead to avoid false impressions?

      You said, “I explicitly called the Bobbio Ending a variant reading.”

      Nobody who is not already familiar with the anomalies in Mk. 16 in Codex Bobbiensis will understand what you mean; they will think that an ending that is not the Shorter Ending is in Codex Bobiensis.

      You said, “I'll edit the text so that it is clearer.”

      Thank you!

      Yours in Christ,

      James Snapp, Jr.