Doesn’t that question sort of make you feel uncomfortable? Isn’t your reaction to that question naturally something like, “They’re Bible verses! What do you mean, ‘What should we do with them?!’ Preach ’em! Believe ’em! Read ’em! Teach ’em to our children!” This is especially true of those holding a King James Version or New King James Version (which, by the way, are really excellent and beautiful translations of the Bible that simply don’t use some of the more-recently-discovered but apparently more ancient manuscripts). The discussion, however, is not that simple.
If you own a copy of the ESV, NASB, NRSV, NIV, CSB, or HCSB (or pretty much any modern translation), what you’ll notice is that verses 9-20 are bracketed, have a note, or both (like what appears in my Bible):
In the KJV and NKJV, there are no brackets, and verse 8 runs uninterrupted and directly into verse 9. There is a textual footnote, but who reads the those?! Exactly! This is one reason I’m so glad that more recent translations have been adding in these sort of notes and/or brackets before including those verses (and others like them…gasp!).
You may be thinking, “So what does it mean that ‘some’ of the earliest manuscripts do not include these verses? Do the rest? Why does this matter? I thought the Bible was inerrant and infallible and all that business! Doesn’t this undermine my confidence in the Bible as God’s Word?” Of course not! As a matter of fact, this should increase your confidence in God’s Word. Here’s the bottom line: God’s Word is perfect, but human copyists aren’t. That’s really what it boils down to. There is an entire field of study dedicated to evaluating biblical manuscripts, with its own set of rules, in order to determine with as much confidence as possible the closest wording to the original manuscripts; this field is called “Textual Criticism.” Yes, I know this sounds very, very fishy, but believe me, it is a necessary field of study and has produced, in my opinion, far more accurate readings of the Bible.
The biggest problem that we face in Bible translation is that none of the original manuscripts still exist (or if they do, we don’t know it). If we had in our hands Mark’s original, handwritten manuscript (called the “autograph”), there would be zero debate in the matter. What we have instead are copies and copies of those copies, all of which started with Mark’s original, handwritten gospel. It would have been copied a number of times, and those copies would have been spread around, and those copies would have been copied, and then those copies would have been copied, etc. Remember how I said earlier is that copyists aren’t perfect? Well that’s true, and so when all those copies are being made and transmitted, small errors will inevitably find their way in.
All of this doesn’t mean that scribes were sloppy, lacked diligence, or had a sinister motivation. They did their best and took it seriously, but everyone makes mistakes. The field of textual criticism has identified what appear to be certain categories of “scribal errors.” These could be anything from trying to smooth out theology or wording that sounds wonky (in good faith) to slips of the eyes (have you ever been reading verse 12, looked up for a sip of coffee, and accidentally started back with verse 14 because it has the same exact words and syntax as verse 12? That happens to people who copy manuscripts too; when your job is to copy text every day for hours a day, you’re bound to slip once or twice!). If an error isn’t caught, it could be copied into new manuscripts and passed along into a whole “family” of manuscripts.
So now you may be thinking, “Well, doesn’t that all add up to mean that our Bibles are corrupt rather than reliable?!” Again, overwhelmingly no! Here’s the beauty of this whole thing: What is staggering about the number of manuscripts, from different times and locations, is actually how much these diverse”families” of manuscripts (literally thousands), agree! Back when we studied 1 Samuel 10:1-16, I quoted scholars Norm Geisler and William Dix (From God to Us) who write, “Not only is the Bible the most well-preserved book to survive from the ancient world, its variant readings of significance amount to less than one-half of one percent, none of which affect any basic Christian doctrine.” So the emphasis we place should be on the overwhelming agreement and the relatively minuscule disagreements between all of these writings. At the end of the day, all we are trying to do is to determine, to the best of our abilities, whether or not the “extra” verses in Mark are indeed “extra” or whether they are original to Mark in the same way that the rest of the book is. In other words, with great care and reverence, we are trying to weigh the evidence that we have and determine what is and is not to be included in God’s Word. And I want to repeat, this is a good thing! It is wonderful that we have the amount of manuscript evidence for the Old and New Testaments that we do. And in that, it is a miracle of God’s preservation that we have such an overwhelming agreement among them all!
So, no, the ESV, the HCSB, the KJV, and the NASB aren’t perfect. No Bible version is, but they extremely accurate, and they will agree in the overwhelming majority of places. You will benefit from reading any and all of these, and you can wholeheartedly affirm that they are trustworthy and reliable, and you should have no reservations about believing what they say. We affirm the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of the autographs but not necessarily every single copy that was ever made. So we would say the KJV is not infallible, but it does accurately represent God’s Word. The ESV is not infallible, but it does accurately represent God’s Word. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy’s Affirmation Arcitle X sums up this entire article I’ve written quite well when it says:
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.
We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) Article X
You can read the entire Chicago Statement here; you’ll be better for it!
I realize I haven’t really come down and answered my initial question, the very title of this post! Given all of this, here is my plan as I have prayed about, wrestled through, studied, and thought deeply about this issue. We will read Mark 16:1-20 in its entirety, but we will only study Mark 16:1-8. I have become convinced that while verses 9-20 contain much truth, much biblical truth, and may even be of apostolic origin, they are likely not originally part of Mark. I don’t disagree with including them in our Bibles with a note of caution, but I don’t know that they provide a better ending to the book than verses 1-8 do; verse 8 leaves it with a bit of a cliffhanger, which seems very much like Mark and his action-packed gospel! So we will read it all but leave our study at verse 8. The Gospel Coalition’s article below is very helpful in sorting out and wading through the evidence. Please give it a read.
Additional Resources for Further Study:
The Gospel Coalition: Was Mark 16:9-20 Originally Part of Mark’s Gospel?
Matt Everhard’s Video: “Missing Verses in the ESV??? Why Aren’t These Verses in My Bible?”
Matt Everhard’s Follow-Up Video: Missing Verses in the ESV Part Two: Added or Omitted?
University of Alberta (Canada): Manuscript Studies: Textual Analysis (Scribal Errors) [the most common types of errors scribes made]
GotQuestions.org: Textual Criticism – what is it?
Defending Inerrancy: Were the New Testament Manuscripts Copied Accurately?