Limitations in Historical Analysis of the New Testament (2 of 2)

In Part 1, we saw the evidence and resolution of two disputed passages in the New Testament. Let’s look at one more and see what lessons we can draw.

Success #3: Long ending of Mark

Mark ends with three women going to the tomb and seeing it already open. (I’ve written more about the many contradictions in the gospel accounts of the resurrection here.) Inside the tomb, there is no Jesus but instead a man in white who tells the women the good news. But, “trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

The End.

Most readers find this an unsatisfying ending. How does the marvelous story get out if the women told no one? Are there no final words of comfort and direction from Jesus?

That disquiet must have been felt by early scribes as well, because they created the Long Ending (Mark 16:9–20), used in the King James Bible.

Jesus says,

These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. (Mark 16:17–18)

Speaking in tongues, invulnerability to snakes and poison, and healing by touch—those claims are both startling and relevant to many Christians today. Pentecostal and charismatic churches, which rely to varying degrees on them, have half a billion members worldwide.

Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Irenaeus reference the Long Ending in the second half of the second century. The Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, our oldest copies of Mark that include the ending, don’t have it, but they’re from the fourth century. Sounds like strong evidence for it being authentic.

On the other hand, the Long Ending appears tacked on and doesn’t flow well, and the consensus of scholars is that this is not original.

Nevertheless, that the Long Ending isn’t original doesn’t mean that Mark ending at 16:8 is. In fact, there are a total of five manuscript traditions for the ending of Mark, and the consensus is that none of them are the original ending.

The limitation of historical analysis

Let me highlight a couple of points. First, note that the enormous number of New Testament manuscripts that apologists like to point to (roughly 6000 in the original Greek and 19,000 in other languages) don’t matter. What matters are the best handful. Each of the debates above is resolved with just a few ancient manuscripts. The discovery of a thousand 12th-century manuscripts would likely advance scholarship less than the discovery of a single second-century papyrus.

Second, this analysis requires two versions. The scholar needs two traditions (a short Mark and a long Mark, for example, with at least one manuscript to represent each) to judge between the two. With only one tradition represented, there’s nothing to judge between.

It’s like a card game. You throw down two fourth-century Bible manuscripts that demonstrate your point—that a particular passage isn’t authentic, let’s imagine. I can trump that with my third-century church father who quotes the passage from the gospel in question. I win.

A single older manuscript reflecting your version might tip the balance in your favor. And—who knows?—such a manuscript might yet be found that would overturn the conclusions for one of our three examples. For example, there is reportedly a first-century copy of Mark, the analysis of which will soon be released. This might turn out to be like the tiny fragment called the Gospel of Mrs. Jesus, which after more thorough analysis didn’t turn out to be all that old. But suppose this first-century Mark had the last chapter. Could it overturn the consensus of scholars about the ending of Mark?

Apologists like to claim that manuscript variants cause them no lost sleep. Look at these three questionable sections, they’ll say. They’re all resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, so where’s the problem?

Here’s the problem. Imagine a historical fork in the road for a particular document. The correctly copied version goes down path A, and the one with a significant error goes down path B. Now imagine that one of those traditions is completely lost to us. That’s hardly surprising. We have only a few tiny scraps of papyrus manuscript within the first century after the original authorship.

Historians today would have a single, consistent tradition, but is it A or B? Worse, they wouldn’t even know that there had been a fork in the road.

For how many errors in our Bible do we not even know to ask what the original was?

Those who do not know their opponent’s arguments
do not completely understand their own.
— Anon.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Y. A. Warren

    The value is so many stories is in the values imparted by them. When we stop caring whether the stories are literally true, perhaps we’ll choose what commonly honored messages we can draw from them.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Sure. And that applies for Chaucer, Gilgamesh, the Upanishads, the tales of King Arthur, and so on. Let’s not pretend that there’s something supernatural behind them without good evidence, though.

      • MNb

        Let’s not pretend that there’s something supernatural behind them at all, because then it’s not science anymore. I’m too lazy now to find the exact quote, but Jona Lendering wrote somewhere on his site that no conclusion from historical research can contradict natural law.
        A fine example is Archimedes and his mirrors to set Roman ships on fire. Physics tells us it’s impossible, so no matter how many sources tell this story, it’s a myth. Still the historian doesn’t stop here, because the myth tells us something about the storyteller – just not about Archimedes.
        The same applies to a great extent to Jesus, who ironically for the historian of Antiquity is not a very relevant character. Much more interesting is how people saw him only a few decades later. Then even the question if he was historical is not that relevant anymore – his admirers obviously thought he was and that does matter.
        Of course this is quite hard to swallow for lots of christians today.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Great point about Jesus becoming an important figure in history, but only many decades after the events were conveniently lost in the mists of history.

          Just to be peevish, I’ll quibble about the Archimedes thing. I’ve seen at least one TV show (not inherently reliable, I admit) trying to recreate the experiment, and I believe the conclusion was that it was possible. Engineering might tell us it’s impossible, but not physics. Enough perfectly curved mirrors held perfectly still and aligned perfectly would have no problem setting a pitch-covered boat on fire on a sunny day.

      • JohnH2

        I think, but am not sure, that Y. A. Warren may agree with you about applying to those others. Considerably less certain about Y. A. Warren agreeing with you about supernatural not being behind them.

      • Y. A. Warren

        I find much on earth Super-natural. Einstein comes immediately to mind.

        • Greg G.
        • Y. A. Warren

          Full Definition of SUPER
          a : of high grade or qualityb —used as a generalized term of approval
          : very large or powerful

          : exhibiting the characteristics of its type to an extreme or excessive degree

        • Greg G.

          The post you were replying to used “supernatural”, which is normally used to mean “not natural”. In this sense of the word “natural”, there are no degrees, it’s not a relative term. It’s natural or it is not natural. “Extranatural” wouldn’t work either. It’s like being a little bit pregnant.

          If you meant that you find much on earth that is above average, I agree.

        • Y. A. Warren

          My children often asked me if they were normal. My constant answer was that I had never been satisfied with any view of “normal.” They asked if I believed in “God.” I said that I didn’t believe in what people said about “God.” I now feel that I am being asked to define “supernatural”. What do we humans define as “natural”?

          Nothing I’d like better than coming to a sincere attempt at conversation. So many terms are loosely used that I would like to either look to the common intent, or stop pretending that there are absolute one-to-one correlations in any two languages, especially in those with different roots.

        • Kodie

          Some people define ‘natural’ to mean uninterfered with by humans. If humans created or modified something, it is no longer in its “natural” state. “Natural” food, like an apple, “frankenfood” can be a GMO apple. It is a matter of perspective and not one of reality. It is not like a beaver dam is natural or a beehive is natural, but the Empire State Building is not natural. We’re animals and we build structures using available materials. What is the difference between a human using a crane to lift beams to the 30th story of a building and then attaching them with portable fire and rivets made in a factory, and a beaver biting branches the right size? Maybe it’s that all beavers know how to build are dams.

          Anyway, natural in the sense that we’re using it here is ‘adhering to the laws of physics’, and supernatural would not only defy the laws of physics, it would do so intentionally and at whim, like, think of something I want… a pizza. Supernaturally, I would have one appear before me with no cause. No coincidental friend who came by to see if I wanted pizza who brought a pizza with them. As it is, I could type in a url and have one made with my name on it. In a sense, that is almost magical, but it doesn’t defy the laws of physics. A message was relayed to the pizza parlor, and they fulfilled my order before sending it on a delivery. Human invention almost makes magic, where we can have a pizza delivered shortly with minimal human interaction. Without doing a whole lot, a pizza can appear before me in a matter of minutes. In the “natural” version, I get in my car and drive over (ok, walk… ) and ask a person to please make a pizza for me, and I pay them in cash, and wait for it to come out of the oven before taking it home. Electronic pizza ordering is not supernatural, it’s natural, even if it was impossible 20 years ago.

          Supernatural would be snapping my fingers and transforming my alarm clock into a pizza. You’re calling amazing real things “supernatural” because you have deemed them better than ordinary things The word you’re searching for is ‘extraordinary’. Not too many people would say online-ordering pizza is even that special. As I like to say to my friends who are old like me, “we are in the future.”

        • Y. A. Warren

          Good points. My perspective is “extra-ordinary”, “super-natural”…all the same to me. Many things that i can’t explain put me into a state of awe.

          In both sides of the arguments about the “super-natural, there are many who are pretending to know what is not, at this time, or in their area of expertise, not knowable. Physics is wonderful, but it doesn’t explain every action in the universe.

          P.S. If you lived in rural Appalachia, as I have, you may find online pizza delivery miraculous.

        • Kodie

          “God” has never been the right answer to any question.

          “Extraordinary” means “rare.”

          “Supernatural” means “physically impossible”.

          You may not know how it is possible, but that doesn’t mean nobody knows, and if nobody does know now, that doesn’t mean nobody will ever find out. We are also, as intelligent as we are, limited. I don’t believe it’s possible to know everything, but that there will always be someone trying to figure out a way to find out things we don’t know. Religion is, in part, an admission that we will never know everything, so why bother and not just make up a story.

        • Y. A. Warren

          Perhaps we simply need to disagree on the meaning of super-natural. i believe that religion is an attempt to pretend that a few are “ordained” to know what nobody can know.

        • Kodie

          That’s stupid because it already has a definition.

          We have enough problems with religionists making up their own definitions. You want to come to common ground on definitions with people, start with the dictionary.

          Religion is a business. The problem is that the people in charge are not necessarily in on the joke. For example, I don’t believe everyone who calls themselves a psychic is a fraud – some actually believe cold-reading is a magical skill that few can access, and they’re kind of right. Once you know how it works and how it can be taught, it’s no longer any more magical than someone who is better at playing musical instruments than someone else, or whatever kind of puzzle any particular mind likes to solve. Religions are a market to sell a particular way of life, the solution. I liken it more to a diet. People who lose weight on a particular diet become cheerleaders for that diet. If you are having trouble losing weight on every diet you’ve ever heard of, just give theirs a try. It’s a miracle. It will work. If it works for one person, they want to share it with everyone. You don’t even need to pay them, they want to save everyone from their extra weight, and this diet is proven to work for an anecdotal amount of people.

          As you may know, not all diets are the same, and most of them work for some people but not everyone. Dieting is not just biological, but often psychological. Religions are also psychological. A system will work against you if you are not fully committed to forgetting everything you think or want, and just submit to it. Christianity for sure is a, in idealistic terms, good way to live your life. I say this as an atheist – if you can find peace of mind in there, and turn your life over to Christ, if you can actually do that, I’m certain, you will be a different person and feel different. Maybe better, even. Maybe you just feel better because you made new friends. But is Christ real? That’s a different issue. Does it work because there’s a Jesus, or does it work because there are a lot of personal changes you have to make, and what constitutes “better”? Is guilt better? Is denial better? It doesn’t work for some people, not because they’re denying god, but because it’s just not a good fit to structure themselves around.

          People in this business are in the business of selling a product to people to even think they are saving their souls. They are not frauds, they think they are doing this for a good cause – your “responsible compassion.” They are not taking a back seat, they are coming forward and dedicating their life to a cause of attracting more business, more pawns to attract more members to the church to ultimately make it more money. Motivational speakers also – I don’t think they are frauds. I think Wayne Dyer really thinks he must write books and speak publicly, to save people from their selves and lift them out of the pits. The more of a following he gets, the more he feels like he’s helping people, and he can check his bank account to see how much he’s helping.

        • Y. A. Warren

          And your point is…?

        • Kodie

          Religions and all the marketing things is not (necessarily) a fraud, but the responsible compassion of which you speak, to get others to follow one way. “This improved my life so I want to share it with you because it will make your life better.” Maybe your life is ok, maybe it doesn’t appeal to you to go about it that way.

          Some humans pioneer for a better world (as they see it, and I’m not saying all of them are wrong or futile), but most are consumers and followers. There doesn’t seem to be an evolutionary downside. We may have doomed ourselves with a dependence on oil, but see, some people are figuring out a way out of it, and everyone is driving around in gasoline-powered cars buying plastic things and such until someone tells them what to do – or sells them different things and makes them want them instead.

          You are glorifying the human experience as if it is something you can manage. Being social creatures, you would have to be pretty charismatic to start a movement, thick-skinned because you will be criticized, and actually have a better plan than “I just want humans to all live up to their intellectual and compassionate potential.” Children are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride and make it easier.

        • Y. A. Warren

          “Children are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride and make it easier.

          This is what i call sharing of The Sacred Spirit in humanity.

        • Kodie

          People have children, I think, with the best of intentions. I also think they have children with the worst of intentions, and the most common of intentions. Everyone is supposed to have children – people who don’t are literally shunned in our society. People who don’t want to have children are seen as selfish freaks. But people who have children have an idealistic hope for a future that is better for their children than it was for them. Anyway, that goes by the wayside, because children take a lot of effort. Maybe it’s not all a waste. From what I’ve seen, people get exasperated and make lazy choices, and also worry a lot and try to set good examples when they are not too tired to.

          What I meant by quoting the Whitney Houston ballad, “Greatest Love of All” was that I’m lazy. I couldn’t finish the thought and then I thought it was funny. If you can’t be productive, at least try to entertain with a cultural reference. When people have kids, and I think most people feel it is imperative that they do, eventually (if not surprised a little earlier than they meant to), this is basically the last effort they have, spent on raising new people. From what I gather, they worry a lot more about the future of the earth after they’re gone – what kind of world are they leaving their children, etc. So, in essence, this kind of gives people who wouldn’t otherwise have an incentive to care what happens after they die and try to be better people so the world their kids grow up in isn’t totally fucked.

          But they’re also fucking tired. More of your energy is spent trying to turn out model citizens or adequate wage-earners or something not totally fucked than anything else you do after you have kids. And once your genes are passed, you might tend to relax a little when you can, because fuck it, genes passed. Evolutionary stage complete. It’s up to them now.

          I am making sweeping generalizations here. But mostly to say we’re just animals and as long as people successfully procreate and aren’t punished for being selfish, selfishness is not a losing strategy.

        • Y. A. Warren

          Agreed, Kodie. “Go forth; be fruitful, and multiply doesn’t necessarily mean “procreate your physical manifestations.”

        • Greg G.

          “P.S. If you lived in rural Appalachia, as I have, you may find online pizza delivery miraculous.”

          I grew up in a small town in the Appalachian foothills. I know what you mean.

          Q. Why do rednecks have a car on cinder blocks in their front yards?
          A. It’s an Appalachian thing. You wouldn’t understand.

        • Y. A. Warren

          One person’s miracle is another person’s mundane.

          Cause they are still stripping it for parts for their whole family…And, do you know that them scrap dealers actually want to charge you to haul away your good stuff?

        • Kodie
    • MNb

      I agree that’s an interesting debate. Still historians, like all scientists, are curious and like to know which historical facts they can derive from those stories and how they should be interpreted. And that’s not the same as caring whether the stories are literally true. There is no single historian, religious or not, who assumes so. You’re are showing the typical bias of a religious ignorant here, who doesn’t like his favourite book be scrutinized.

      • Y. A. Warren

        What do you think is my favorite book?

        • GubbaBumpkin

          “My Pet Goat”?

  • RichardSRussell

    For an all-knowing, all-caring, all-powerful guy, God sure didn’t seem to know or care much about the value of back-up copies or have the power to make them happen. Why didn’t he just give all the disciples iPads with the New Testament already loaded onto them, in the definitive, Yahweh-approved canonical form? Man, I sure wouldn’t want such an incompetent hack in charge of my IT department!

    • MNb

      That’s irrelevant for this article. Historians, ie professional scholars, do not assume that any part of the Bible was written by some supernatural entity.

      • RichardSRussell

        And would you say that the viewpoint of professional scholars represents the dominant attitude that our society has toward the book?

        • MNb

          I don’t live in your society, so I don’t care in this thread.
          I’m a scientismist so in the first place I care about facts, good hypotheses and solid theories.
          Your question is irrelevant too.

        • RichardSRussell

          It is far from irrelevant for those of us who do live in this society, where religious fundamentalists have about a million times the political power of professional scholars, which is why we have to pay attention to what they think. Nice luxury for you that you’re immune from their influence.

          Where is that, exactly, anyway? And can you send me brochures from your Immigration Bureau?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          MNb lives in Suriname.

          (I marvel at people with an excellent command of a second language. Or third or whatever. Another trait of living in this society is that awareness of other cultures is lower than it should be.)

        • wtfwjtd

          Ah, Suriname, home of the Wolf fish! I love those deep jungle adventures of Jeremy Wade, and Suriname was one of the best!

        • Michael

          Knowing other languages appears common among Dutch people. Maybe because they’re surrounded by people with more widely spoken languages?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Though the Netherlands had something of an empire a while ago, that’s not really the case now. I presume someone from there knows that the sun doesn’t rise and set on the Netherlands.

          The sun doesn’t rise and set on the U.S., either, though some Americans don’t seem to know that. I think we’re too insular.

        • Michael

          I think the Netherlands, surrounded and often controlled by more powerful neighbors, was more aware of that than us here, who have oceans to literally keep the world away.

        • MNb

          Well, after reading several American atheist blogs for a few years that hardly could have escaped me. That’s why I added “in this thread”. Of course when some religious fundamentalist shows up or BobS reacts on the crap produced by some religious fundamentalist I’m on your side.
          My point is that your remarks are irrelevant on this actual page, nothing more. You’ve brought up nothing to contradict it.
          I am a Dutchman living in Moengo, Suriname, founded by Suralco, a daughter of Alcoa. Suriname doesn’t have an Immigration Bureau. We do have an American embassy though.

          The country is as about religious as the USA (only 4% atheists). The Surinamese generally do not like religious fundamentalism though, even if some of your compatriots work hard to push it.

          The Full Gospel teachers (fundamentalists who were noo doubt indoctrinated by American missionaries) have lost this fight. I like this country.

        • RichardSRussell

          Well, I now know about 10 times as much about Suriname as 10 minutes ago, so I think I like it, too.

        • Michael

          That article brings up a lot of questions MNb. Maroons are the descendants of escaped slaves, correct? What’s Moravian though? I’m guessing the article doesn’t mean people from Moravia by the context.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I had to look up scientismist.

    • Ron

      God: No, no, no. I’m going to leave them alone and not actually witness them writing it down .I’m just gonna assume it all went to plan.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        That’s like putting the Tree in the Garden of Eden, telling two beings with the moral sophistication of a 1-year-old to not touch it, and then walking away.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      Why didn’t he just give all the disciples iPads with the New Testament
      already loaded onto them, in the definitive, Yahweh-approved canonical

      Battery issues.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Those big lead-acid car batteries were all they had back then. Dang. Otherwise, a pretty good idea.

  • MNb

    “For how many errors in our Bible do we not even know to ask what the original was?”
    Yes, but that is true for every single document from Antiquity. It doesn’t make much sense to speculate about what we can’t lay our hands on. That’s what Dutch historian of Antiquity Jona Lendering writes about all the time. If we can’t check against another source we only can repeat it’s content and conclude we can’t check.
    Your question is similar to “What if in other parts of the Universe the natural laws we have formulated don’t apply?”
    We better focus on what we actually do know. Sometimes that leads to several hypotheses we can’t decide between. We’ll have to live with it. In physics it’s worse – we have no way to decide if String Theory is a better theory than it’s competitors because there are no experiments formulated which could decide.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      It doesn’t make much sense to speculate about what we can’t lay our hands on.

      I think it does if it improves our understanding of how accurate our assessment is. Sure, let’s do the best we can with what we’ve got. My point is simply that “what we’ve got” isn’t as much as many think.

      Your question is similar to “What if in other parts of the Universe the natural laws we have formulated don’t apply?”

      And there’s a big difference between realizing that that’s an actual, valid question and not.

      • MNb

        “My point is simply that “what we’ve got” isn’t as much as many think.”
        Point immediately granted as I prefer minimalism.

        It seems to produce more relaible results.

        • Greg G.

          I think the minimalist position in Jesus studies assumes too much. The early epistles don’t support it and there’s at least one story that is plausible under minimalism that conflicts with one of the epistles, so even the more plausible stories are suspect. Compare Mark 7 with Galatians 2. If the Mark story actually happened, Peter would have been there. In Galatians, Paul agrees with Jesus in Mark 7 but Peter argues against him.

        • Itarion

          I’m latching onto a minor detail in this article and running with it: lack of evidence for the kingdom of Solomon.

          You don’t mind if I draw parallels between the mythic King Solomon and the equally mythic King Arthur, do you?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Huh? No King Solomon? What nonsense! Where else would the Queen of Sheba go?? Who did they mine all that gold for from Solomon’s mines?!

          Do some research, dood!

    • smrnda

      I think this depends on the text and what people are using it for. With a history, we can kind of accept we might not have totally precise information and just leave it at that with a few question marks.

      The way some people use the Bible as a guide to truth, reliability becomes a much bigger issue. Whether Jesus said or did something becomes incredibly relevant since these are matters of doctrine and morality for many people. It isn’t like wondering if our version of Homer is a little different than another, or whether or not my version of a film uses a few different cuts than the theatrical release.

  • Greg G.

    I have favored the idea that Mark ending at 16:8 is the original ending. The syllogism in Mark 11 with Jesus raising his temper with a fig tree, then having a Temple tantrum, followed by the withered tree is suggesting the destruction of the Temple. ThecParable of the Evil Tenants in Mark 12 suggests that God will give the Jew’s inheritance to others. So that when the ladies are afraid to tell, the disciples don’t meet Jesus in Galilee, so that is why they got wiped out in the war.

    However, I recently read and haven’t digested yet that Mark is written in a chiastic structure and the abrupt ending doesn’t seem to fit that structure.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’d heard of chiastic structure for witticisms (“if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”), but not for books. Interesting.

    • Itarion

      Actually, that’s very interesting, the structure that this analyzer has proposed. If you select different passages at different levels, you get different stories, and these sub-stories actually will, for the most part, make sense as standalone pieces.

      For example, this:

      A And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
      B And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”
      C Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I will; be clean.”
      D And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
      D And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.”
      C But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country;
      B and people came to him from every quarter.

      [I have no idea if Disqus will allow the formatting, but each successive letter, A-D, is indented further. Edit: Yeah, it doesn’t like that.]
      You can take just about any combination here and get a coherent story, though not the same story, based upon which sections you select. It’s really kinda cool.

  • Itarion

    I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but I LOVE those ending quotes.

    • MNb


    • Bob Seidensticker


  • James Snapp, Jr.

    (Sorry I didn’t post here earlier.)
    The current “scholarly consensus” that 16:9-20 is not part of the original text is largely a side-effect of the current (and longstanding) scholarly method of developing a position on the question. This method consists basically of two steps: (1) read Bruce Metzger’s comments on the subject. (2) Don’t read anything else on the subject.

    I invite you to invest 99 cents in my e-book about this (“Authentic: The Case for Mark 16:9-20”) or send a request and I will be glad to send an updated digital copy to you for free.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      So you’re saying that the long ending of Mark is actually authentic? Can you summarize your reasoning here?

      • MR

        Hey, Bob, for a couple bucks, I’ll tell you my two cents worth, too!

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Coming out of your mouth, I’m sure that’d be a bargain.

        • MR

          I’ll…, take that as a compliment!