Until just a few years ago when my husband mentioned it, I didn’t even know there was a question about the ending of Mark 16. Sure enough when I opened my Bible, in between verse 8 and 9 it says in brackets, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.”1 When comparing the shorter ending with the longer ending, it is clear that the longer version is a happier ending. Did Bible editors include the longer version just to give us a happy ending?
The shorter ending is not a happy ending. It ends rather abruptly with women coming to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body with spices only to find the tomb empty. A young man dressed in white tells them not be alarmed and to go tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Trembling and bewildered they flee the scene, and say nothing to anyone because they were afraid.2 Whereas the longer ending has Jesus speaking to the apostles, His ascension to heaven, and the apostles going out to preach and do miracles.3
How do we decide which is the real ending? And, does it matter? In his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright states that those in favor of the shorter reading support their position by arguing that the earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark (fourth-century codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) end with verse 8.4 The longer reading is found in the fifth-century manuscripts (led by Alexandrinus).5 Since then, most manuscripts include the longer text.6 (In case you were wondering about the earliest papyrus fragments of the New Testament, no copies of Mark 16 have yet been found.)7
Wright pops the bubbles on the theories of either endings. He reveals that most contemporary commentators agree that while both the shorter and longer endings “are extremely interesting, they are almost certainly not by Mark.”8 Wright concurs by rejecting both endings, claiming they are “lame substitutions.” He argues that Mark wrote a different ending which is now lost,9 or, alternatively, Mark did not finish his book before he died—someone else finished it for him.10
So, what are we to do with all these theories? Do we allow this uncertainty to shake our faith or cause us to doubt the rest of Scripture? Does this affect the evidence for a resurrected Jesus? When faced with the unknown, it is necessary to return to what is known. There is plenty of other evidence from the New Testament, early Church Fathers, and even non-Christian ancient historians for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even if we cannot be sure of a happy ending to Mark, we can be sure of a happy ending for those who believe in Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”11