Is it Necessarily True that Mark 16:9-20 is an Interpolation?
Last night, I read a question from a friend concerning the relationship between the last few verses of Mark and the idea of inspiration. As any good study Bible will point out, the part of Mark that scholars are confident was in the original only extends to Mark 16:8. At that point, my Bible reports: "The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient sources do not have Mark 16:9-20." My friend's question asked how the idea that Mark 16:9-20 may have been added fits into the idea of inerrancy. After all, if God was inspiring the Bible, how is it that any portion would need to be added? Couldn't God have simply inspired the later-added verses when He inspired the writing of the rest of the Gospel?
This is an excellent question. There are several ways to approach it, but I want to focus on one: the assumption that because the earliest manuscripts do not contain it, verses 9-20 were added later by another editor or writer. Quite simply, I don't think that the assumption is necessarily true.
First, I want to be clear that the number of instances where scholars suspect that there may have been insertions of material into the original Gospel texts are extraordinarily limited. As stated Sir Frederick Kenyon in Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (1958, Harper and Row):
The long passages which appear in our English Bibles as Mark xvi. 9-20 and John vii. 53-viii. 11 are absent from the oldest MSS. of the New Testment. In the former, our oldest and best MSS. end at Mark xvi. 8, and what follows is an attempt, based on the traditions found in Luke and John, to round off the story. John vii. 53-viii. 11 is also omitted by the oldest MSS., while in others it is found after vii. 36, or at the end of the Gospel, or after Luke xxi. 38, and was certainly a piece of 'floating' tradition which was inserted into the New Testament text at an early date. There is, however, no reason to suppose that additions of this kind have been made in any except very few cases. The evidence for our Bible text is too great and of too varied a description to allow us to suppose that passages have been interpolated without any sign of it being visible. The intentional alterations of scribes are, for the most part, verbal, not substantial, such as the modifications of a phrase in one Evangelist to suit the narrative of another, or the combination of two reports of some utterance into one; and errors of this kind can generally be detected on a comparison of several different manuscripts, in some of which the alteration will not have been made.
While there is evidence that our earliest manuscripts of Mark did not contain the ending, I think that it is quite obvious that Mark did not end at Mark 16:8 because that verse leaves us hanging as to exactly what happened after the women, who were trembling and afraid and "said nothing to anyone," were told that Jesus had risen. It seems apparent that the ending of the Gospel is missing if the longer version contained in a number of the ancient manuscripts is missing.
Regardless, just because the earliest manuscripts do not contain these verses does not mean that later manuscripts containing Mark 16:9-20 do not have the actual, original ending, does it?
Look at it this way, suppose that you are a cook and you send out copies of your 2 page recipe for lemon chicken to three friends. Friends one and two put your recipe aside for awhile, but friend three decides to forward it onto ten of his friends. However, he loses the second page of the recipe. He decides to send on what he has (only page one) rather than not send anything at all. The recipe then gets circulated without the second page. If that were to happen, we might think that the recipe ended at page one -- at least until friends one and two, after sitting on the recipe for awhile, decide to send their two-page recipes to their friends. Then we would have two recipes: one without a second page and one with a second page. Now supposing all three of the people who originally received the two-page recipe lost the original recipes (the autographs) that you had sent to them. If the autographs which you sent to the three friends were lost and you had to reconstruct the recipe based upon the secondary copies, you might conclude that the recipe didn't really have a second page but rather that the second page was added later based upon the dates of the copies of the recipes that we have.
The same certainly could have happened here. Mark may have written his Gospel (based on the teachings of Peter) and had copies made that were circulated. Perhaps one group lost the final page was more enthusiastic about making copies than the others, and proceeded to make copies without the final page because they wanted the Gospel circulated. The other copies remained in the possession of groups who were more centralized or spread the Gospel orally and did not need or desire to make copies of their manuscript. Only later (perhaps 100 years or more) did they start making and circulating copies of the Gospel itself in writing. These copies would be later in time, but would actually be more complete and accurate than the copies being circulated earlier.
Is it possible that the last page could have been lost to one group? Yes, because the Gospel of Mark may have been transmitted in a form known as a codex -- much like the typical church bulletin, i.e., single sheets of paper (papyri or vellum) folded in half and stacked one on top of the other. As described by Sir Kenyon:
. . . certainly from the second century and probably as early as the first the Christian community was using the material in a different way -- that, namely, which is known as the codex-form. This is in fact our modern form of book with leaves arranged in quires or gatherings. In the simplest form of quire a single sheet of papyrus if folded down the middle, so producing two leaves of four pages, and a codex could be formed of a number of such quires sewn together. Or a number of such sheets, calculated to be sufficient for the whole of the text to be written, would be laid one on top of another and the whole folded so as to produce a codex consisting of a single enormous quire.
Suppose that Mark was originally circulated in just such a form. Is it difficult to imagine that the bottom most sheet that would contain the very last few verses of Mark's Gospel (perhaps the first few verses as well -- which would explain the lack of a Nativity story and the sudden start with John the Baptist's cry in the wilderness) could be torn off and lost on a journey to another city in ancient times?
Thus, it is my view that just because the text suggests that the earliest manuscript evidence did not contain Mark 16: 9-20, that is not conclusive evidence that the supposedly interpolated parts were not in the original.