James Tabor presents a new look at the original text of the earliest Gospel [I added some edits and some information at the end, Ed Babinski]
The last verse in the Gospel of Mark (16:8) reads...
“And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing.”
The problem with the Gospel of Mark for the final editors of the New Testament was that it was grossly deficient. First it is significantly shorter than the other Gospels—with only 16 chapters compared to Matthew (28), Luke (24) and John (21). But more important is how Mark begins his Gospel and how he ends it.
He has no account of the virgin birth of Jesus — or for that matter, any birth of Jesus at all. In fact, Joseph, husband of Mary, is never named in Markʼs Gospel at all—and Jesus is called a “son of Mary,” see my previous post on this here. But even more significant is Markʼs strange ending. He has no appearances of Jesus following the visit of the women on Easter morning to the empty tomb!
Like the other three Gospels Mark recounts the visit of Mary Magdalene and her companions to the tomb of Jesus early Sunday morning. Upon arriving they find the blocking stone at the entrance of the tomb removed and a “young man”—notice—not said explicitly to be “an angel” nor “two angels” as in later Gospels—tells them:
“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing. (Mark 16:6-8)
And there the Gospel simply ends!
Mark gives no accounts of anyone seeing Jesus as Matthew, Luke, and John later report. In fact, according to Mark, any future epiphanies or “sightings” of Jesus will be in the north, in Galilee, not in Jerusalem.
This original ending of Mark was viewed by later Christians as so deficient that not only was Mark placed second in order in the New Testament, but various endings were added by Christians in some manuscripts to try to remedy things. The longest concocted ending, which became Mark 16:9-19, became so treasured that it was included in both Catholic and Protestant Bibles (including the King James Version) and considered part of the holy canon of inspired Scriptures. Here is that forged ending of Mark, added after the women fled and “told no one”:
“Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.”
This long added ending is not found in our earliest and most reliable Greek copies of Mark.1 Clement of Alexandria and Origen (early 3rd century) show no knowledge of the existence of these verses; furthermore Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them. The language and style of the Greek is clearly not Markan, and it is pretty evident that what the forger did was take sections of the endings of Matthew, Luke and John (marked respectively in red, blue, and purple above) and simply create a “proper” ending.
Even though this longer ending became the preferred one, it was not the only such ending added to Mark! A different ending that was shorter, as well as an expansion added to the end of the longer ending also were found in ancient manuscripts:
 “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
 ‘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 [or, does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal your righteousness now’ — thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, ‘The term of years of Satanʼs 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, in order that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness that is in heaven.’
That being said, what implications can we draw from the existence of additions to the original ending of Mark? (If you recall, the earliest manuscripts end simply with the women exiting the empty tomb and “telling no one.”) The implications challenge naive understandings of Christian origins which ignore the development and trajectory of tales about the “resurrected” Jesus that grew over time. I have dealt with this issue more generally in my post, “What Really Happened on Easter Morning” that sets the stage for the following implications.
In Mark, on the last night of Jesusʼ life, he told his intimate followers following their meal, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28), which was repeated at the tomb by the “young man,” who tells the women, “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 Mark believes is that Jesus has been “lifted up” or “raised up” to the right hand of God and that the disciples would “see” him in Galilee. Mark knows of no accounts of people encountering the revived corpse of Jesus, wounds and all, walking around Jerusalem as in the two last Gospels written, Luke and John. The story in Mark is that the disciples experienced their epiphanies of Jesus once they returned to Galilee after the eight-day Passover festival and had returned to their fishing to ponder the death of their leader, whose cause they had hoped would succeed, and who had originally abandoned their livelihoods to follow. They probably could not imagine the time spent following their leader had been in vain, and thatʼs when they had their “epiphanies,” whatever they may have been. But there is little evidence to suggest such epiphanies/early appearance tales were the same as in the latter most Gospels, which either changed or deleted the messages in both Mark 14 and Mark 16. Those messages in Mark were that “He would go before them to Galilee” and be seen “there,” rather than in Jerusalem.
The faith that Mark reflects, namely that Jesus has been “raised up” or lifted up to heaven, is precisely parallel to that of Paul—who is the earliest witness to this understanding of Jesusʼ resurrection. You can read my full exposition of Paulʼs understanding “the heavenly glorified Christ,” whom he claims to encounter, here. And notably, he parallels his own visionary experience to that of Peter, James and the rest of the apostles. What this means is that when Paul wrote, in the 50s CE, this was the resurrection faith of the early followers of Jesus! Since Matthew, Luke and John come so much later and clearly reflect the period after 70 CE when all of the first witnesses were dead—including Peter, Paul and James the brother of Jesus, they are clearly 2nd generation traditions and should not be given priority.
Mark begins his account with the line “The Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Clearly for him, what he subsequently writes is that “Gospel,” not a deficient version that needs to be supplemented or “fixed” with later alternative traditions about Jesus appearing in a resuscitated body Easter weekend in Jerusalem.
James D. Tabor [with some edits by Ed Babinski, and additional information at the end]
Two Quotations Concerning the Added Ending of Mark from N.T. Textual Scholar & Christian Bruce Metzger
The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts (א and B), 20 from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, 21 and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written a.d. 897 and a.d. 913).
--Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition
Since Mark was not responsible for the composition of the last twelve verses of the generally current form of his Gospel, and since they undoubtedly had been attached to the Gospel before the Church recognized the fourfold Gospels as canonical, it follows that the New Testament contains not four but five evangelic accounts of events subsequent to the resurrection.
--Bruce B. Metzger The Text of the New Testament Oxford: OUP, 1992, 229.
So Metzger pointed out that the church canonized four Gospels and one mini-post-rez-Gospel story. Ha.
The most significant NT textual variants, including the added long and short endings to Mark, appear to be these.
What such variants demonstrate is that by the time the Christian churches finalized their New [and Improved] Testament it was 300 years after Jesus had died and they were editing it right up to the last minute--adding multiple endings to the last chapter of Mark, adding explicit Trinitarian passages to one letter, adding entire letters that appeared so late that the apostles who allegedly wrote them were already dead. For additional “last minute” changes see, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, and, Misquoting Jesus, both by Bart D. Ehrman.
Larry Hurtado (N.T. Scholar & Christian) on How Stories Changed Over Time from Gospel to Gospel
“Mark was significantly re-shaped by the authors of Matthew and Luke, which is well analyzed in modern redaction-critical and literary-critical studies. For example, Matthew embodies about 90% of Mark and generally retains the Markan order of the material taken over from Mark, but this material is wedded with much additional material (the “Q” and “M” material), and is appropriated in a narrative with additional components producing a significantly different narrative plan (e.g., the “birth narrative” in Matthew 1-2, the resurrection appearances and “great commission” in Matthew 28). Moreover, Matthew exhibits frequent and well-known modification of the Markan material appropriated (cf. Mark 6:45-52/ Matt 14:22-33), and a considerably different cluster of thematic concerns (e.g., lessened negative portrayal of disciples, greater emphasis on Jesus as a teacher of specific rules of life as in 5:19-48 and 18:7-35, and a more positive emphasis on Peter as in 16:16-20, etc.)
“The adaptation of Markan material in Luke is probably even more thorough. In Luke one finds only about 60% of Mark, and, as in Matthew, the Markan material is joined by a large body of “Q” material as well as a sizable amount of “special” Lukan material (e.g., Luke 1-2, the mission of the 70 in 10:1-20, parables in 15:8-32, the post-resurrection narratives in Luke 24, etc.). In addition, as in Matthew, the Markan material has often been modified in style, content, and emphases, producing significantly different versions of the incidents and sayings taken over from Mark (e.g., the Lukan eschatological discourse in 21:5-38); and the material is submerged in an account that has a distinctive narrative shape (e.g., the “travel narrative” of 9:51-19:27, and the beginning and ending of Luke) as well as distinctive emphases and narrative devices (e.g., the chronological concerns in 2:1-2 and 3:1-2).
“Also, as studies of the use of the Q material in Matthew and Luke have shown, the authors apparently felt free to adapt their other written source similarly.”
“As another example of the way ancients often provide significantly new renditions of texts, we may note Tatianʼs Diatessaron, in which the material in the four canonical Gospels was woven creatively into a new continuous sequence producing an account of Jesusʼ ministry that was thereby markedly different from any one of the four sources. Though the Diatessaron is the most well known ancient Gospel “harmony,” indications are that this was not the first or only such literary creation. The ancient Gospel harmonies show that the textual integrity of Mark and the other Gospels was not always important to at least some Christians, and that they felt free to draw upon the Gospels as sources to create their own compositions and renditions of the story of Jesus. This freedom can be demonstrated in the ancient handling of other texts as well, such as the radical abbreviation and modification of Jason of Cyreneʼs five-volume work by the author of 2 Maccabees.”
“In addition to the ancient freedom to give new renditions of ancient texts, we must also reckon with the freedom some ancient copyists exercised in transmitting texts. Although NT textual criticism appears to be regarded by some as an arcane and uninteresting area, a better familiarity with the manuscript tradition would perhaps help NT scholars develop a better grasp of ancient textuality.”
“In the ancient setting, where texts were transmitted by being copied by hand, the transmission often involved a considerable freedom in modifying the text being copied. Modern research has shown that, while some copyists apparently practiced their craft with great care for exactness, many others made all sorts of changes: stylistic modifications, frequent harmonization (especially harmonization of Mark with parallels in the other Synoptics), deletions (e.g., the so-called ‘Western non-interpolations’ in Luke), insertions (e.g., the famous pericope of the adulteress added after John 7:53, or 7:36 or 21:25 or after Luke 21:38), and modifications of a doctrinal nature (e.g., the several variations in Mark 3:21 and 13:32).
“Perhaps the most extensive example of the somewhat free textual transmission of the NT is the so-called Western text of Acts, which is nearly one-tenth longer than the more familiar Alexandrian text. In particular, E. J Epp has called for more attention to the modification of the NT text of a thematic nature exhibited in the western text of Acts.”
“But there is, of course, a major example of the somewhat fluid nature of ancient textuality that we can note directly pertaining to Mark: the several scribally-supplied endings to Mark, all of which are significant modifications of the shape of the Markan narrative. [For a review of the variations, see Metzger, Textual Commentary, 122-26. See also J. L. Magness, Sense and Absence: Structure and Suspension in the Ending of Markʼs Gospel (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986). For an innovative study of the ‘long ending’ to Mark, see P. A. Mirecki, ‘Mark 16:9-20: Composition, Tradition and Redaction,’ (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1986).] These scribal innovations in the ending of Mark show how free some ancient Christians felt to modify even those texts deemed to have some sort of authority; and the reshaping of the Markan ending is only the most well-known example of the fluidity of ancient texts.”
“We must beware of assuming that the concern for exactness characteristic of the printed text or attributed to the Massoretic copying of the Hebrew Bible was shared by ancients in general. That was manifestly not the case.”
A section in Hurtadoʼs online paper, “Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark A Critical Assessment of Werner Kelberʼs The Oral and the Written Gospel,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 7 (1997) 91-106.
The latest issue of New Testament Studies, 2011, raises a further question:
“Matthewʼs Use of Mark: Did Matthew Intend to Supplement or to Replace His Primary Source?*” by David C. Sim [School of Theology/Centre for Early Christian Studies, Australian Catholic University] The abstract reads: “Most scholars acknowledge Matthewʼs debt to Mark in the composition of his own Gospel, and they are fully aware of his extensive redaction and expansion of this major source. Yet few scholars pose what is an obvious question that arises from these points: What was Matthewʼs intention for Mark once he had composed and circulated his own revised and enlarged account of Jesusʼ mission? Did he intend to supplement Mark, in which case he wished his readers to continue to consult Mark as well as his own narrative, or was it his intention to replace the earlier Gospel? It is argued in this study that the evidence suggests that Matthew viewed Mark as seriously flawed, and that he wrote his own Gospel to replace the inadequate Marcan account.”
The mere fact that Mark, ostensibly the earliest Gospel, lacked a birth narrative and a post-resurrection narrative, while those were added to later Gospels (Matthew and Luke), and that Matthew and Luke disagree the most in exactly those birth and post-resurrection stories that they added to the Markan narrative, raises questions as to the validity of such tales.